In the early 1970s, the research arm of Exxon hired a promising young engineer named Michael Stanley Whittingham and asked him to invent something—anything—that could reduce the company's dependence on crude oil. Whittingham and a team holed up at an Exxon R & D lab in New Jersey, and, as engineers are wont to do, started mixing together chemicals to see what would happen. When they injected potassium into the rare metal tantalum, they noticed something extraordinary—the resulting mixture had an extremely high capacity to store energy.
Over the next few months they continued tinkering with various metals. Whittingham's team replaced tantalum with titanium, and because potassium was hazardous to work with, they switched it for lithium. When they were done, Whittingham raced to Exxon's headquarters to report to the board that they'd created something amazing. It was the first lithium-based battery that worked at room temperature, and it had the potential to upend the entire energy business.
Of course, that didn't happen. Soon came a recession, an oil glut, and the election of Ronald Reagan, which ended a great deal of government funding for research into advanced energy projects. Exxon licensed Whittingham's battery technology and closed off the division. And for a while, the dream of a perfect battery that could replace gasoline was, once again, dead.
This is how it goes in the battery business. As Seth Fletcher, a senior editor at Popular Science, recounts in his engaging new book Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy, scientists have been trying to build a better battery since before the days of Thomas Edison (who was a major battery tinkerer himself). (Disclosure: Fletcher and I share the same literary agent.) If we had batteries that matched the price and performance of fossil fuels, we would not only have cleaner cars, but we might be able to remake much of the rest of the nation's energy infrastructure, too. Wind and solar power are generated intermittently—sometimes the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine—and batteries can moderate that volatility. Stores of batteries placed in the electric grid could collect energy when the sun shines or when the wind blows and then discharge it when we need it. Not to put too fine a point on it, but you might say that the future of the world depends on better batteries—a better battery would alter geopolitics, mitigate the disasters of climate change, and spur a new economic boom.
But a better battery doesn't seem to be in the offing anytime soon. As Fletcher explains, physics, politics, and the price of gasoline have always conspired against the improvement of battery technology. Fletcher's book is hopeful—he investigates a number of promising technologies that might theoretically challenge the dominance of fossil fuels. But many of them are a long way from fruition, and the history of failure in the battery industry doesn't inspire confidence. We might get a better battery someday, and if we do it will probably come from China, which has become the hub of advanced energy production. But don't hold your breath.
The fundamental problem with batteries is the existence of gasoline. Oil is cheap, abundant, and relatively easy to transport. Most importantly, it has a high "energy density"—meaning that it's phenomenally good at storing energy for its weight. Today's best lithium-ion batteries can hold about 200 watt-hours per kilogram—a measure of energy density—and they might theoretically be able to store about 400 watt-hours per kilogram. Gasoline has a density equivalent of around 13,000 watt-hours per kilogram.
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