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Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy

by Seth Fletcher

Pub Date: May 18th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-8090-3053-8
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The future is all around us, goes the techie adage; it’s just not evenly distributed. And so it is with a certain battery, writes Popular Science features editor Fletcher, that could change the world.

What was it those guys in Star Trek were always hunting for? Ah, yes: dilithium, the stuff with which to keep their starship tanked up. Here on Earth we have lithium, with veins of the mineral scattered across the deserts of Bolivia and Chile. The author opens with an account of a “concept car” from General Motors, the Chevrolet Volt, revealed just a few years back with the idea that “electrification of the automobile had finally arrived thanks to a critical enabling technology: the lithium-ion battery.” The problem, as Fletcher notes, was that the batteries were there theoretically, “within sight yet not within hand”—that is, lithium batteries were in use, to be sure, in things such as cell phones and cameras, but just hadn’t quite scaled up to car size. Was GM just trying to project a green image? Perhaps. But, Fletcher argues, when the technology matches up with reality, big changes could await us in the form of a comparatively inexpensive, comparatively abundant and certainly comparatively clean fuel source. The author provides an entertaining, surprisingly eventful history of human efforts to harness energy in the form of battery power since the days of Alessandro Volta, focusing closely on latter-day genius and evangelist John Goodenough, who worked on lithium oxides beginning in the 1950s but whose breakthrough invention went begging for a license—“not for any good reason,” notes Fletcher, except that it was unorthodox. Fast-forward 50 years, and the unorthodox is the commonplace. Who will benefit, though? That’s a matter that remains to be settled once a variety of international scientists get around to conjuring up lithium-based fuel out of—yes, thin air.

A fine, readable work of popular science, sometimes verging on science fiction.