Just five years ago, the documentary film Who Killed the Electric Car? claimed to prove conclusively that American electric vehicle technology had been effectively buried by an unholy cartel of car makers, government bureaucrats, oil companies, and SUV-loving consumers. The documentary’s hard-hitting reporting and acerbic style persuaded thousands of moviegoers that American industry would never allow an electric car to challenge the supremacy of the internal combustion engine.

Bottled Lightning:
Superbatteries, Electric Cars,
and the New Lithium Economy

by Seth Fletcher
Hill & Wang, 272 pp.

That wasn’t just the opinion of a few cranky independent filmmakers: the electric car has been a running joke on The Simpsons for years. (On a family trip to a theme park, Homer and Bart visit the Electric Car of the Future attraction—sponsored by the Gasoline Producers of America. On the ride, their sad, pastel-pink vehicle whines, “Hello, I’m an electric car. I can’t go very fast or very far.”)

But now, GM’s Chevy Volt is being rolled out in cities across the country—and has been honored by Motor Trend as the 2011 Car of the Year: “A Car of the Future You Can Drive Today.” Other car makers are racing to get their electric cars on American roadways: the Nissan Leaf is already in a few American markets, with nationwide rollout planned for next year; Toyota has unveiled a plug-in Prius; Mitsubishi is bringing its MiEV electric vehicle to U.S. dealers this year; and an electric Ford Focus has been announced as well. These battery-powered vehicles are generating so much buzz that the producers of the 2006 documentary have been forced to make a sequel—The Revenge of the Electric Car.

How did electric cars come so far, so fast? And, more important, both for consumers and for the future of our country, where will they go from here? These are the questions posed—and at least partially answered—in Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy, by Seth Fletcher, a senior editor at Popular Science magazine. In this well-written, accessible history of lithium batteries and their role in the development of practical electric cars, Fletcher makes a strong case that new energy storage technologies are the key to a green industrial revolution.

“Electricity,” Fletcher explains, is “the cleanest and most flexible” alternative to gasoline. “It’s piped into every home in the country. Mile by mile, it’s cheaper compared with gasoline.… It can come from almost any source—natural gas, coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, solar, wind.” There’s just one problem: it’s hard to store. So if we want electric cars that aren’t powered by range-limiting extension cords, we need to build better batteries.

Historically, cars have been equipped with lead-acid batteries—heavy, environmentally unfriendly, and limited in storage capacity. So any car powered solely by a lead-acid battery—like the EV1 eulogized in Who Killed the Electric Car?—will have limited range (less than 100 miles) and will require frequent, time-consuming recharging.

Seeking a better alternative, scientists started “scouring the periodic table,” in Fletcher’s words, experimenting with various exotic chemical compounds before turning their sights on lithium, the lightest metal in the universe. Lithium’s “eagerness” to shed electrons, along with its light weight and energy density, have made it the basis for the small, powerful batteries that now power billions of cell phones, laptops, and iPods; lithium- based batteries have the theoretical potential to challenge, pound for pound, the energy and power stored in gasoline.

But there’s a major gap between that theoretical energy storage and even the best lithium-based batteries available today. Thus far, no one has invented advanced battery technologies that can rival the price, reliability, and energy storage capacity of a tank of gas. And building a better battery is only a first step toward reinventing our entire energy infrastructure.

But while the challenge is great, the potential rewards are enormous. If all of our cars and light trucks ran on electricity, we could cut American oil consumption by more than a third—roughly 7.2 million barrels of oil a day. Advanced grid-scale battery technologies would make it possible to store electricity generated by wind and solar for use when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. Just as important, we could create tens of thousands of new green tech jobs in the long run—jobs that would stay right here at home. The implications for our global environment and our national energy security are enormous. But, as Fletcher warns, we can’t hope to reach those goals without strong, consistent investment in developing new energy technologies, including next-generation battery systems.

As the director of a National Laboratory, I have a deep-seated personal and professional interest in the future of energy research. And—like Fletcher—I see increasing reason for optimism about the potential of lithium-based batteries to transform our energy economy.

The economic potential of these “superbatteries” is immense: the research firm IHS Global Insight predicts that advances in battery technology will allow hybrids and electric cars to grab up to 15 percent of the world’s new car sales by 2020. At today’s production rates, that’s about 7.5 million cars a year.

Those rosy predictions have encouraged the Obama administration to place a heavy bet on the future of the electric car—specifically, on a new advanced battery manufacturing sector. Under the Recovery Act, the federal government invested $2.4 billion in forty-eight advanced battery and electric drive projects nationwide. Today there are more than half a dozen new advanced battery manufacturing plants near completion or up and running—and they are hiring new workers. Just a couple of months ago, lithium-ion battery maker A123 Systems celebrated the hiring of its 1,000th worker at its new, stimulus-backed manufacturing plant in Michigan.

A visit to one of these sparkling clean, highly automated battery manufacturing plants seems like a trip into a brave new future of abundant green energy. But as Fletcher makes clear, the story of electric cars, and the battery technologies that power them, has been, in his words, “a parade of extraordinary failures stretching back to the late nineteenth century.” The first electric cars date to the time of Thomas Edison, when the quiet and sedate electrics were considered “ladies’ cars.” (In fact, Henry Ford’s wife, Clara, bought an electric brougham in 1914 because she considered her husband’s Model Ts too noisy.) Interest in electric vehicles has cyclically flared up every few decades ever since, usually in response to a spike in oil prices. But when gasoline costs have fallen, so has American consumers’ willingness to trade in their gas guzzlers for electric cars— at least, for the electric cars that have been available until now.

Fletcher does a great job of walking readers through the history of battery technology, and he writes about the complexities of science and engineering with clarity and flair. He sums up the fundamental challenge of energy storage technology in one pithy sentence: “You can’t just shove loose electrons in a can.”

Instead, lithium-ion batteries rely on four basic components: a positively charged cathode, a negative anode, an electrolyte “bridge” that allows lithium ions to flow between the two, and a separator that keeps the chemical components from combining in an explosive reaction. Charging the battery forces lithium ions to move from the cathode to the anode, where they are stored. When the battery is used, the lithium ions discharge the battery’s stored electricity as they flow back to the cathode.

Unfortunately, it only sounds simple. Each component must be made from complex compounds, synthesized and engineered to balance maximum energy storage with maximum stability and safety. As battery researchers seek new ways to coax energy out of lithium, the technological advances become ever more nuanced and arcane. Yet Fletcher succeeds in making these battery technologies fairly comprehensible to a lay reader, as when he explains the workings of a breakthrough in anode chemistry: “Lithium ions flee the carbon-based electrode and swim across the electrolyte to the cathode,” he writes. “Once they arrive, they burrow into the crystalline lattice of the cobalt oxide, docking into place.” In that battery system, Fletcher explains, the cathode resembles an “atomic Jenga puzzle.”

Fletcher is equally at ease in describing the effects of America’s roller-coaster energy policy, which has led to repeated cycles of brisk acceleration and sudden unexpected stops in our battery research programs. When it comes to energy technology research, as former Energy Secretary James Schlesinger once said, “We have only two modes—complacency and panic.”

Over the decades, complacency has tended to muffle interest in energy innovations. In 1979, in inflation-adjusted dollars, the federal budget invested about $7.8 billion in energy-related research. In fiscal year 2010, that investment had fallen to $5.1 billion. That figure represents a substantial increase over the budgets of the previous decade, but it’s still woefully short of the $16 billion annual national investment recommended by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Against this landscape of scarce funding and intermittent public interest, Fletcher presents a handful of eminent scientists and engineers in academia and private industry whose innovative thinking—and old-fashioned hard work—are making lithium battery-powered cars a reality. One vivid example is the story of John Goodenough, an American physicist turned solid-state chemist who developed a lithium-cobalt-oxide cathode while at Oxford University in the late 1970s. At the time, no commercial companies were interested in the new technology, so Goodenough signed away his patent rights to a British research lab—only to see the cathode technology licensed and commercialized by Sony and used in almost every mobile phone, laptop, and digital camera in the world. Now, Fletcher reports, the eighty-eight-year-old inventor tells the story of his lost patent with “a bellowing laugh.”

But the international race to create—and manufacture—viable lithium-based car batteries is no laughing matter. And today, at least, it appears that the United States is a serious contender to lead in that race. A recent report by a veteran consultant to the battery industry compared all costs of manufacturing batteries in China and the United States, and found that U.S. manufacturing can be cost competitive. Advanced battery manufacturing is highly automated, which reduces the Chinese advantage of low-cost, low-skilled labor; the salaries of highly educated, skilled workers to run the factories are roughly equivalent. Chinese utility costs are twice as high as ours here in the United States. Add in the cost of shipping big, heavy car batteries around the world, and you’ve got a real market opportunity for U.S. battery makers.

As Fletcher’s history teaches us, however, an opportunity is not a sure thing. The playing field could be tilted dramatically by foreign government investment—like the $30 billion in low-cost loans the China Development Bank provided to Chinese solar manufacturers last year. If China or another foreign government makes that type of massive investment in lithium battery manufacturing, yet another great U.S. research breakthrough could wind up being commercialized and developed into a thriving new industry far from home.

Those risks are real. But the grim prospect of losing yet another new high-tech industry to foreign competitors makes those risks worth taking. With affordable capital to cover the up-front costs of building advanced battery manufacturing plants factories here, I believe we have a real chance to be competitive in a large and growing world market—once we have the lithium battery technology to challenge the internal combustion engine. And that, of course, is the challenge at the heart of Bottled Lightning.

I have a couple of quibbles about the book itself. First, in choosing the protagonists of his story, Fletcher pays scant attention to the vital contribution of the National Laboratory system—in particular, Argonne National Laboratory, where I am director. Argonne’s leading role in the creation of advanced battery technologies dates back to the late 1990s. Our work has led to high-energy lithium-ion battery cells that are cheaper, safer, and more powerful—a rare hat trick in energy research. LG Chem, a battery manufacturing giant, licensed our technology and created the battery supplied for the 2011 Volt—a story that Fletcher largely overlooks.

Second, while the book’s final chapter reviews some promising ideas for new battery systems beyond the lithium-ion variety, these are only a handful among dozens and dozens of battery research initiatives currently being worked on in labs throughout the U.S. and the world. (Google “new lithium battery technology” and you’ll see what I mean.) Given the speed of discovery and innovation in this field, the batteries that Fletcher showcases as promising technologies of the future may be overshadowed, or even outdated, by the time Bottled Lightning comes out in paperback.

I don’t mean to sound overly optimistic; we still have a long way to go to create a battery system that can rival the energy stored in a tank of gas. We have to solve some knotty scientific puzzles, using technology we haven’t invented yet. For example, we know that a battery using air as a cathode could offer energy density up to ten times higher than today’s lithium-ion batteries. But first, we have to discover a way to make a battery that “breathes in” oxygen from the air to discharge electricity, then “breathes out” again to recharge. Then we have to convert those discoveries into battery systems that can be affordably mass produced, we have to put these technologies into cars that consumers want to buy, and we have to do it all before our international competitors catch up. But, as Fletcher comments, “[t]here are a couple of ways to react to this sort of discouraging calculus. One is defeatism. The other is research.”

Fletcher understands that, ultimately, this is a battle of economics, not technology: “Dollars per kilowatt-hour stored is all that matters.” Our long-term goal is to create car battery systems that are smaller, sturdier, and about ten times more powerful than the ones we have today. But as one analyst told Fletcher, if the price of the current generation of car batteries comes down far enough—or if the price of gasoline goes high enough—”It’s game over for gasoline.”

Just as importantly, Fletcher understands that leading the world in energy storage technology is also a matter of national pride. Now-retired GM executive Robert Lutz, one of the book’s main characters, makes that point explicit: the Chevy Volt “is where GM can finally demonstrate to the world that, when it comes to advanced propulsion technology, nobody else in the world can lay a glove on us.”

Looking ahead, I hope Seth Fletcher and his colleagues on the energy beat will continue to beat the drum for battery R&D, and will keep on working to inform the American public about the potential for lithium technologies to create new jobs, recharge our nation’s manufacturing base, and help us build a new, secure, green energy economy. As Fletcher concludes, “If the budding American energy-storage industry fails … it would be a tremendous lost opportunity, a failure to participate in what promises to be one of the greatest industries of the coming century.”

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Eric D. Isaacs is the director of the Argonne National Laboratory and professor of physics in the James Franck Institute at the Univeristy of Chicago.