Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy

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9780809030644: Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy

Lithium batteries may hold the key to an environmentally sustainable, oil-independent future. From electric cars to a "smart" power grid that can actually store electricity, letting us harness the powers of the sun and the wind and use them when we need them, lithium―a metal half as dense as water, found primarily in some of the most uninhabitable places on earth―has the potential to set us on a path toward a low-carbon energy economy.

In Bottled Lightning, Seth Fletcher takes us on a fascinating journey, from the salt flats of Bolivia to the labs of MIT and Stanford, from the turmoil at GM to cutting-edge lithium-ion battery start-ups, introducing us to the key players and ideas in an industry with the power to reshape the world. Lithium is the thread that ties together many crucial stories of our time: the environmental movement; the American auto industry, staking its revival on the electrification of cars and trucks; the struggle between first-world countries in need of natural resources and the impoverished countries where those resources are found; and the overwhelming popularity of the portable, Internet-connected gadgets that are changing the way we communicate. With nearly limitless possibilities, the promise of lithium offers new hope to a foundering American economy desperately searching for a green-tech boom to revive it.

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About the Author:

Seth Fletcher is a senior editor at Popular Science magazine. His writing has also appeared in Men's Journal, Outside, Salon, and other publications. He lives in Brooklyn.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

THE ELECTRICIANS   Before the invention of the battery in the first year of the nineteenth century, electricity as we know it today—as a stream of electrons that can be made to do our bidding—didn’t exist. Electricity was part parlor trick, part mystery. It was a fuzzy force field that could be conjured by rubbing a plate of glass with fur. It was in no way useful, and it wasn’t even remotely understood. Only after the battery gave mankind a reliable source of electricity did that really begin to change. We’ve known about what is now called static electricity since around 600 B.C., when the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus began puzzling over a strange property of amber: when rubbed with cloth, amber (called elektron in Greek) would, through some invisible mechanism, pull feathers toward itself. The phenomenon resembled magnetism, which the Greeks had observed in iron-bearing stones found near the city of Magnesia on the Meander. After Thales, however, more than two millennia would pass before human understanding of these two forces advanced appreciably. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, some momentum returned when William Gilbert, chief doctor to Queen Elizabeth I of England, discovered that a variety of materials could be electrified by friction, just like amber. Gilbert is the one who coined the word “electricity,” drawing on the Greek word for amber to give a name to the force that he called “electrical effluvia.” After that, in part because there was no good way to store electricity for use in experiments, the “electrickal arts” progressed only haltingly for the next century and a half . Then came the Leyden jar. Invented in the town of Leyden, Belgium, in the 1740s, it was literally a jar for electricity. Its walls coated inside and out with metal, the jar was filled with water and then, via a metal chain that dangled down through the lid, charged by an electrostatic machine. (We now know that the Leyden jar is a capacitor, a device that stores charge between a pair of conductors.) One Leyden jar, or several of them wired in series, could hold a significant charge, as Benjamin Franklin learned around Christmas in 1750, when he accidentally hit himself with a charge he’d been building up to kill a holiday turkey. He called it a “universal blow” through the body, which left “a numbness in my arms and the back of my neck which continued til the next morning but wore off.” Yet the Leyden jar’s usefulness was limited by the fact that it could dump its charge only in that kind of instantaneous jolt. This restricted the kinds of experiments scientists—or, as they often referred to themselves, electricians—could perform, and by the second half of the eighteenth century the true nature of electricity was still a mystery. In 1752, when Franklin performed his legendary kite experiment and determined that the electricity generated by friction was the same stuff as lightning, it was an important breakthrough. But what was that common force? No one knew.
  The battery was the accidental fruit of a dispute between two Italian scientists over this question. In one corner was Luigi Galvani, a physician at the University of Bologna, who noticed that under certain circumstances, touching a scalpel to the crural nerves in the thigh of a dissected frog caused the legs to kick to life. Galvani came to believe that within the muscles of all living creatures flows an electrical fluid, an “indwelling electricity” generated by the brain and pumped through the body as a motivating force.   In the other corner was Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta, a professor of physics at the University of Pavia. Volta had long been interested in the general project of eliminating superstition through the careful study of phenomena still commonly attributed to magic. He thought deeply about the concepts of mind and the soul, and for a while he entertained Galvani’s theory as a possible explanation for the relationship between the “will” and the motion of the body. But that didn’t last long. Through his research with electrical instruments he became convinced that there was no such thing as animal electricity. Instead, electricity was set in motion by the contact of different metals. When a disembodied frog leg kicks in the presence of electricity, that’s because it’s a good conductor, just like the human tongue, one of Volta’s favorite experimental tools.   Galvani and Volta sparred over the nature of electricity for years beginning in 1792, trading jabs in letters and books. A decisive round began in 1797, when Galvani published a long book devoted to destroying Volta’s theory of metallic electricity. Volta could easily handle all of Galvani’s arguments but one, which involved a freak of nature that seemed to validate everything Galvani believed in: the torpedo fish, a bottom-dwelling ray conveniently equipped with an organ capable of creating electrical shocks strong enough to kill a man. Galvani believed that some kind of electrical fluid was cooked up in the fish’s brain and then piped throughout its nervous system, and he intended to prove it experimentally.   Volta knew that the torpedo fish threat had to be dispatched quickly. He learned how to do so when he read a paper by the English chemist William Nicholson, which proposed that the torpedo fish produced electricity not through its brain, nerves, or will, but through an organ that could be modeled mechanically. Volta ran with Nicholson’s idea, determined to build a device that would draw electricity only from the contact of different metals. After only a few months he emerged from his lab with a column of little sandwich cookies, each one a zinc and copper disc separated by brine-soaked cardboard. On March 20, 1800, Volta wrote to Sir Joseph Banks of the Royal Society in England, announcing his discovery of “electricity excited by the mere mutual contact of different kinds of metal.”   The battery had arrived.   News of the battery spread across Europe as quickly as the infrastructure of the day would allow. Letters describing the new device sailed to England, France, Denmark. Electricians throughout Europe began replicating Volta’s experiment, and soon they began building larger and more powerful batteries. Nicholson built one and used it to create what the historian Giuliano Pancaldi described as “loud detonations, clouds of bubbles, gleams of light, shocks felt by up to nine people holding each other by the hand, and a ramified metallic vegetation, nine or ten times the bulk of the wire, when the wire was kept in the circuit of the battery for four hours.” Almost immediately the battery enabled major fundamental scientific discoveries. Within weeks, Nicholson and his colleague Anthony Carlisle had used the battery to break water down into hydrogen and oxygen, proving that water was not, in fact, an irreducible element.   Volta called his invention the “organe electrique artificial.” Nicholson called the device the “pile,” referring to the fact that it is simply a pile of metal and cardboard. Soon, however, the word “battery” emerged in common usage, a reference to the practice of connecting a “battery” of Leyden jars in series to supply electricity.   The battery assured Volta a place in the pantheon. It was “the last great discovery made with the instruments, concepts, and methods of the eighteenth-century electricians,” a device that “opened up a limitless field” that “transformed our civilization,” wrote the historian John L. Heilbron. The nineteenth-century physicist Michael Faraday, often considered the most brilliant experimentalist in history, called the battery a “magnificent instrument of philosophic research.” Auguste Comte, the founder of positivist philosophy, called Volta “immortal” and put him on the Positivist Calendar, a proposed reform calendar that celebrated history’s greatest thinkers. According to the historian of science George Sarton, the battery “opened to man a new and incomparable source of energy.”   Volta earned such effusive praise because of the battery’s enduring, history-bending influence. Throughout the nineteenth century, the battery powered the experiments that finally allowed human beings to put to work the amber-borne force field that had mystified thinkers for millennia. The famed English chemist Humphry Davy used large batteries to break various minerals into previously unknown elements—potassium, sodium, magnesium, calcium, barium, strontium. In Copenhagen in 1820, Hans Christian Oersted noticed while giving a lecture that current flowing from a battery changed the direction of a compass that was sitting nearby. Soon, Oersted proved that electricity could induce magnetism. Oersted’s discovery led to James Clerk Maxwell’s equations describing the relationship between electricity and magnetism—electromagnetism—which led to the electric motor, the generator, the telephone, and every other electrically powered device ever invented.   By the middle of the nineteenth century, the battery found use outside the lab, primarily as a power source for the telegraph. As the battery steadily improved, its uses grew. In 1859, the French physicist Gaston Planté achieved a major breakthrough: the first practical rechargeable battery, a primitive version of the lead-acid cells we still use to start our gas-powered cars. In 1881, the French chemical engineer Camille Alphonse Faure came up with a practical method for manufacturing lead-acid batteries. Soon a shady bunch of European patent scavengers and stock manipulators were trying to get rich on Faure’s invention, inflating the small-scale equivalent of a nineteenth-century dot-com bubble, and temporarily giving the battery business a bad reputation. But that didn’t stop the spread of the new technology. By the beginning of the twentieth century, lead-acid batteries were widely used to power telegraphs, manage the electrical load in electricallighting substations, and support electrical streetcar networks. By then, many of them were also driving cars.
  At the beginning of the automobile age, cars powered by gasoline, electricity, and steam all shared the road, and none was an obvious winner. Actually, electric cars had a strong early advantage. They were clean, quiet, and civilized. Gas-powered cars were unreliable, complicated, loud, and dirty. They could be started only with a firm turn of the starting crank, and when that crank backfired it was extremely effective at breaking arms. When they weren’t breaking down or inflicting pain, however, gas-powered cars offered something that electric cars couldn’t—decent driving range, extendable within minutes with a tin of gasoline from the general store.   Thomas Edison loved the idea of the electric car. Electric cars were a natural, stabilizing, money-generating appendage to the electrical network he had spent his career building. Widespread adoption of the electric car would help sustain his direct current (DC) standard, because charging a battery from an alternating-current (AC) network required an additional piece of equipment, an AC-DC converter. He knew that battery technology would determine whether electric cars would thrive or lose out to the rapidly improving gas-powered car, and he happened to be looking for a new conquest. He had already made, lost, and remade a fortune—already invented the stock ticker, the lightbulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture. He had just closed down a disastrous attempt at mining iron ore in western New Jersey. And so in 1898, he began studying the literature on battery research, the first step in a quest that would dominate the next eleven years of his life.   The battery project was a departure for him. For years he had railed against “storage batteries,” as rechargeables were called. He saw them as catalysts for corruption, the tools of scam artists. Now he was committed to bringing the technology into a new, respectable age, and he was confident that he would succeed. “I don’t think Nature would be so unkind as to withhold the secret of a good storage battery, if a real earnest hunt were made for it,” he wrote to a friend. He had no idea what he was getting himself into.   Edison’s goal was to create a new battery that would triple the capacity of the most advanced lead-acid batteries of his day. He wanted to surpass lead acid by ditching both the lead and the acid, finding new metals and electrolytes that could build a battery that was not only more energetic but also longer-lived. Part of the reason for his choice of materials was that he believed an alkaline rather than acidic electrolyte would be necessary to build a lighter and longer-lived battery. But he was also competing against the market-leading Electric Storage Battery (ESB) Company of Philadelphia, which was owned by the New York tycoon William C. Whitney, and which controlled most of the patents on lead-acid batteries. Edison couldn’t chase them on their own wellestablished road. He would have to find a different approach.   The romantic telling of this period of Edison’s life has the proudly anti-academic inventor scorning theory and, instead, systematically churning through every conceivably suitable substance—innumerable grades and forms of copper, iron, cadmium, cobalt, magnesium, nickel hydrate, along with any number of formulations of the electrolyte. As his biographer Matthew Josephson wrote, “The number of experiments mounted into the hundreds, then to the thousands; at over ten thousand, Edison said, ‘they turned the register back to zero and started over again.’ A year, eighteen months went by, and they had not even a clue.”   In reality, he was not working blindly. He knew the literature. He was probably building on research conducted by scientists such as the Swedish chemist Waldemar Jungner, who had been doing pioneering work on alkaline batteries himself. Edison was also probably spying on his competition at ESB, which was racing to develop an improved lead-acid battery called the Exide. Because of the intensity of the competition with ESB, almost as soon as Edison chose a basic design for his battery he began promoting it. In 1902, he wrote an article for the North American Review reporting that his lab work had led him to “the final perfection of the storage battery,” a cell that used nickel and iron electrodes and a potassium-based electrolyte. He had his critics. In the magazine Outing, a writer named Ritchie G. Betts mocked Edison for promising “a featherweight and inexhaustible battery, or one which may, by the twist of a wrist or the pass of a hand, draw power, and be recharged from the skies or the atmosphere or whatnot, and lo! all problems are solved! The ideal automobile is at hand!” But the critical voices would be overwhelmed by a press infatuated with the myth of Edison, the Wizard.   By 1903, Edison’s workers were dropping his nickel-iron batteries into cars and logging miles, and conducting primitive abuse testing by throwing batteries out of third-story windows of their Orange, New Jersey, lab. By the following year, they had pushed the battery to impressive new levels of capacity: 14 watt-hours per pound, 233 percent better than the lead-acid batteries of the day. It wasn’t quite triple, but it was close enough.   Edison launched his Type E nickel-iron battery with a level of hype and overpromising that would do today’s most egregious vaporware vendors proud. It was a “revolutionary” new battery that would “last longer than four or five automobiles.” Predictably, Edison’s fans in the press were enthralled. The nickel-iron battery “revolutionized the world of power.” The “age of stored electricity” had arrived. The giddiness didn’t last lo...

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