Book Review: Bottled Lightning – Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy, Sean Fletcher (the Hill and Wang, Division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2011), 258 pp.

This is an excellent, up-to-date history of the development of the electric car and the basic science of battery technology that made it possible.  The author, a senior editor at Popular Science magazine, has written a readable, exciting work that is a “must-read” for environmentalists.  It is the most interesting book I have read in several years.

The book begins with an explanation of how batteries work and the contributions of Thomas Edison to the early development of the electric car; it lost out to gasoline powered vehicles because an infrastructure to recharge batteries was non-existent at the time.  Edison patented the most efficient battery of its time in 1908; it happened to use lithium as an ingredient in its electrolyte.  Lithium subsequently was to be recognized as the ideal metal for batteries because it was light (its atomic weight is 1/30th that of lead) and has a high electro-negativity (the tendency to donate electrons).

Interest in the electric car and battery research was rekindled in the 1960’s by the recognition that cars were the major cause of air pollution (90% in the case of Los Angeles).  The Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 provided additional impetus to battery research.  However, the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the oil glut in the early 1980’s lead major players to withdraw from the field.

Developments in wireless communication, first conceived by Bell Lab in 1947, lead to tremendous interest in low toxicity, rechargeable, increasingly small (more energy dense) batteries.  This culminated in the introduction by Sony in 1992 of a 3.6 volt, rechargeable, lithium-ion battery which had three times the energy density of lead-oxide, twice that of nickel-cadmium, and 10-20% higher than the nickel-metal-hydride batteries that had just been introduced.  This reduced the number of batteries required by the amplifiers used in existing cell-phones from six to two and contributed to the explosion in the market for handheld cell-phones beginning with Motorola in 1994.  That the new battery would revolutionize other electronic gadgetry was rapidly apparent to industry and major players in electronics, primarily from Japan, joined the race to further develop the lithium-ion technology.

The value of the lighter-weight batteries for electric cars was also immediately appreciated by industry.  In 1990, GM announced it would introduce an electric car for production – what came to be the notorious EV1.  Later that year the California Air Resources Board mandated that each car company make 2% of its cars “emission free” by 1998.  The EV1, powered by a nickel-metal-hydride battery with a range of 150 miles, became available for lease in 1996.  It was an immediate success with the number of potential lessees far exceeding the number of EV1’s available.  For reasons that remain unclear, GM took the car out of production in 2002 and destroyed the remaining EVs.  The story of the EV1 was chronicled in the acclaimed documentary Who Killed the Electric Car.

The fabulous success of the Toyota Prius, introduced in 2001, lead to vastly renewed interest in electric cars at GM culminating in the introduction of the Chevrolet Volt as a concept car in early 2007.  GM began seeking a supplier for a battery with high enough energy density that it would allow a range of 40 miles (sufficient for 85% of American commuters), enough power to meet the performance expectation of the general public, and a 10-year/150, 000 mile warranty on the life of the battery.  The decreased demand caused by the financial melt-down in 2008 coupled with the huge losses at GM leading to its filing for bankruptcy in 2009 made many doubt if the promise of the Volt would ever be achieved.  The successful resolution of the bankruptcy and the strong support of the Obama Administration allowed GM to survive, not in small part to the anticipated success of the Volt.

What about the supply of lithium – is there going to be a lithium cartel like OPEC?  The best lithium deposits are in evaporated, salt lakes to which it has been transported from nearby rock formations.  This sort of geology is located in the triangle in South America formed where the boundaries of Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina meet.  Identified reserves (economically and legally developable at the present time) include Chile – 7.5 million metric tons (megatons – mt), China – 3.5 mt, Argentina – 0.85 mt, Australia – 0 .58 mt, and the US – 0.038 mt.  However, approximately 32.5 megatons of potentially developable deposits have been identified; these include Bolivia – 9 mt, Chile – 7.5 mt, China – 5.4 mt, and the United States – 2.6 mt.  Chile is the major producer at this time.  It is in the best position to meet the 60 thousand annual demand expected by 2020 if electric cars reach a five per cent adoption rate.  Bolivia has excellent reserves but it will take several years for the infrastructure to be in place to develop them.  Adequate supply should not, then, be an issue.  Moreover, unlike oil, lithium is not consumed by incorporation in a battery but is available for re-use after recycling.  On the other hand,  just last month the head of Argentina’s Ministry of Science and Technology  proposed an OPEC-like arrangement for the “lithium triangle” of Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina.

The Obama Administration recognized that the depression and the economic stimulus required to help reverse it provided an opportunity – a “sputnik-moment” per Energy Secretary Steven Chu – to jump start (pun intended) an electric battery industry in this country.  Over $2 billion were directed to members of the Advanced Battery Consortium, many located in the so-called “rust belt.”  Competition from China (BYG), Japan (Panasonic, Mitsubishi, and NEC), and Korea (LG Chem and Samsung) is fierce.  Enerdel, located in Indianapolis, is the largest battery producer in the US but has facilities only 1/5th the size of some Japanese producers.  The weight of batteries makes manufacturing batteries in the countries where the cars will be sold a necessity so foreign companies will set up production facilities here.  Even though labor costs for battery production are not as big a factor as in other sectors, China still has the advantage of being able to rapidly construct new production facilities due to its authoritarian “state capitalistic” approach to development.  Our edge in advanced research capacity may allow us to catch up if financial support from the federal government remains available as it is in other countries – and this is a big if judging from the unbelievable partisanship shown by the Republicans in Congress on the debt limit issue.

The Volt came on the market last December.  GM chose the American affiliate of the Korean company LG Chem to supply the battery because of its long experience in the field.  The battery is t-shaped, six feet long, weighs 400 pounds, and consists of 200, 3.6 volt lithium-ion cells wired together to achieve a 16 kwh (kilowatt-hour) capacity.  The battery supplies an electric motor with a power of 111 kw (149 HP); however, in order to meet the 10-year life-expectancy requirement , the battery only operates within a discharge window of 30-70% reducing its effective storage capacity to 8 kwh.  This allows a range of 40 miles on a single charge.  There also is a back-up 55 kw motor supplied by a generator connected to a 1.4 liter internal combustion engine that runs on gasoline; this extends the range to approximately 380 miles.  Overall fuel efficiency is 62 miles- per- gallon according to the EPA.  The author of this book had the opportunity to drive a Volt and was tremendously impressed with its styling, handling, and performance.

We all want the electric car to succeed.  Yet, the general public may not be ready for a purely electric car with its limited range.  The extension in range provided by the Volt’s gasoline engine overcomes this limitation and economies of scale and improved technology should reduce its price costs in the near future.  A recharging infrastructure is rapidly being put into place across the country.  However, deployment of expensive, megawatt size charging stations will be required to reduce the electronic refueling time for existing batteries to that of gasoline filling stations.  Research to produce batteries with a high enough energy storage capacity to extend the range of electric cars to several hundred miles, such as IBM’s Battery 500 Project, is vital.  This area of research is probably the most important in the world today as we confront the problems of climate change and dwindling gasoline supplies.

Note: in the first quarter of 2011, 1,200 Chevrolet Volts and 471 Nissan Leafs were sold.

By Mike Miller, Roeland Park, KS

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