In 1894, a mechanical engineer and a chemist built an electric car. The batteries weighed 1,600 pounds, and the vehicle could reach speeds of 15 mph. They called it the Electrobat. Surely, by now, after more than a century of scientific advances, we have mastered this technology?
Well, no. But the idea that the United States and the world are on the verge of a new era of electric cars — a gadget that can save the environment! — is once again current, and its imminence is the unspoken premise of Seth Fletcher’s “Bottled Lightning.”
The quest for an electric-car future has set off bursts of activity around the globe, inspired alternately by greed, dreams of scientific fame and a fear that the planet is otherwise imperiled. “Bottled Lightning” takes us on this mad dash forward.
There is Tesla, the California company stringing together enough laptop batteries to power $100,000 luxury cars appropriate to their celebrity clientele. There is General Motors, which, though teetering just a few years ago on the brink of bankruptcy, has developed the Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in car; and Nissan, doubling down on the technology with the all-electric Leaf. The Obama administration, meanwhile, pumps billions of government dollars into the industry, supporting battery plants and car companies.
But this latter-day gold rush into lithium ion batteries has more far-reaching and lesser-known side effects, and Fletcher, an editor at Popular Science magazine, explores these as well.
In Bolivia, which boasts what may be the largest known store of lithium deposits, the government of leftist President Evo Morales is engaged in a slow and so far fruitless effort to develop a means of extracting and refining the metal for commercial use. In courtrooms and laboratories, scientists battle over credit — and the patents — for the latest versions of lithium ion batteries. And at least in the early days, the batteries’ developers fought the fearful possibility that their inventions could catch fire, as laptops powered by Sony lithium ion batteries did in 2005.
But what provides the tension in this story is that no one is quite sure how any of these big bets on electric cars will play out. There have been other eruptions of electric car enthusiasm, after all, most notably in the 1970s. Then, even Exxon execs apparently thought electric vehicles were the way of the future. “I happen to believe that somewhere down the road, in 30 or 40 years, we’re going to be fundamentally an electrically-based society and we’re all going to be tooling around in electric cars,” said Exxon Chairman Clifton Garvin, who hoped to supply motors and batteries to the incipient electric car industry. GM, meanwhile, was developing the Electrovette — a Chevette with a back seat full of batteries — and Exxon put together a hybrid gas-electric prototype from a Chrysler Cordoba.
Today, it is the development of lithium ion batteries and other advances that have spurred the renewal of electric -car hopes. But the batteries are still fabulously expensive, and not just in the luxury Tesla. The Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf both sell for $15,000 or more above conventional vehicles of equivalent size, and neither would be considered even close to affordable if not for a $7,500 federal tax credit.
Meanwhile, rival technologies such as clean diesel and hydrogen have their own devotees, who are all too willing to cast aspersions on the electric aspirants. Delightfully, the conflict among these rival camps is strong enough to provoke some non-corporate displays of bravado from corporate chieftains. One Toyota exec was quoted saying that the company’s employees had a “death watch” for the Chevrolet Volt and the Tesla Model S. And the president of Audi of America called the Volt a car for “idiots.” The Tesla boss, meanwhile, has taken to calling his critics “douches.”
So are we really at the dawn of another electric-car age? Fletcher appears to think so, reasoning that car companies’ heavy betting on the technology means they know something we don’t: “That some of the biggest corporations on earth have invested billions of dollars in lithium-ion-powered automotive electrification suggests that, according to the kinds of internal calculations that carmakers and battery companies don’t share, the math can work.”
Yet one of the curiosities of “Bottled Lightning” is that it’s possible to come away with the opposite conclusion. Toward the end, Fletcher asks a scientist who has played a key role in battery research since the 1980s: What major challenges remain? “Everything, almost,” he says.
Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy
By Seth Fletcher
Hill and Wang.
260 pp. $26