Jay Leno’s garage. It’s probably not where you’d expect to wind up while on “Search for the Super Battery,” but it’s one of host David Pogue’s first stops on the Nova documentary, which premieres Feb. 1 on PBS.
The comedian’s collection includes a 1909 Baker Electric, a vintage set of wheels that — just like today’s electric cars — runs on battery power. Pogue and Leno simply plug in and take it for a spin. It’s a comfortable, quiet ride. So how did gas guzzlers take over American roads instead? Bad batteries, explains Pogue’s voice-over. They weren’t dependable, and many had to be recalled.
Even a century later, that’s a story that sounds familiar. Just consider the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, released last year. The smartphone was pulled because it had an unfortunate habit of spontaneously combusting because of a defective battery.
Potential for bursting into flames is the major downside of lithium-ion batteries. Swinging by several labs to see how they’re built and how they work, Pogue explains that they’ve gained widespread popularity because of their ability to pack a lot of energy into a lightweight package. Defective or not, if you puncture one of them, you’re asking for trouble — or possibly YouTube fame. (There’s a montage of video clips featuring batteries, pointy objects and fireballs.)
So it’s only natural to be a bit nervous watching Pogue visit Mike Zimmerman, founder of the start-up Ionic Materials. Using a kind of plastic — rather than a lithium-ion combination — he has developed a battery that can take a beating. Pogue brandishes a pair of scissors as he examines the innovation. And then he cuts into it.
There’s no hiss or smoke, or even heat. The lights the battery is powering stay on. Pogue keeps happily clipping away, joking that he’s “making a doily.”
What he’s really making is a point: Batteries are evolving to do more, and do it safely. It’s powerful stuff.