Why the World Is Betting on a Better Battery: A Reading List

Photo from the Henry Ford Collection, via Ford

Nick Leiber | Longreads | March 2015

 

The first battery, a pile of copper and zinc discs, was invented more than 200 years ago, ushering in the electric age. Subsequent versions led to portable electronics, mobile computing, and our current love affair with smartphones (1,000 of which are shipped every 22 seconds). Now batteries are powering electric cars and storing electricity produced by solar cells and windmills, but they don’t last long enough and are too expensive for either use to really go mainstream. To cut the cost, Tesla plans to double the world’s production capacity of the popular lithium-ion battery with its forthcoming $5 billion battery manufacturing plant in the Nevada desert. Tesla’s idea is to use economies of scale to lower prices. Meanwhile, other companies and many industrialized countries, including China and the U.S., are racing to develop batteries that are more advanced than Tesla’s. They’re betting billions that breakthrough battery technologies will help create new industries, juice existing ones, and wean us off fossil fuels because we’ll be able to use the sun and wind in their place. Here is a book, a documentary, and five stories on our battery-powered future.

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1. The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World (Steve LeVine, 2015)

A lot of what I’ve learned about this topic comes from journalist Steve LeVine’s engrossing history about the race to develop a superbattery. In a recent talk at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, LeVine said that he chose the topic because he recognized a better battery could change geopolitics. LeVine ignored his wife and friends who worried batteries were too boring. He went deep. He spent two years at the U.S. Department of Energy-backed Argonne National Laboratory, where our government is working on advanced batteries. The mostly foreign-born scientists drive the story, explaining the stakes involved in commercializing their work: the urgency, the difficulty, the competition, the politics, the deceit. (“Batteries have been unusually marked by exaggeration and outright fraud,” LeVine notes in the chapter titled, “Batteries Are a Treacherous World.”) He doesn’t just hang around Argonne; we hear from the brains involved in advancing the technology at carmakers, battery manufacturers, other labs, government agencies, universities, and beyond, including Bill Gates, who tells an audience at a summit that clean power is perhaps the world’s greatest challenge.

You can read essays adapted from the book on Quartz, where LeVine is the Washington correspondent, and at Foreign Affairs.

2. “Inside Elon Musk’s $1.4 Billion Score” (Peter Elkind, Fortune)

Elkind digs into the jousting between states to lure Tesla’s massive battery factory to their turf. Thanks in part to its ability to play them off each other, the electric carmaker landed “$1.4 billion in tax breaks, free land, and other beneficence from Nevada to build the factory outside Reno,” writes Elkind, describing it as “one of the biggest gift baskets in history.” It’s no secret cheaper batteries are crucial to Tesla’s strategy, and Elkind notes that some see the Gigafactory, as Tesla calls it, “as a bet-the-company move, requiring near-perfect execution and a wholesale public embrace of electric cars, which today account for less than 1% of the auto market.”

3. “Smooth Operators” (The Economist)

A bigger question is this: How can we store huge amounts of renewable energy for the electric grid? Ideas range from big batteries to subterranean caverns filled with compressed air. Some are ready for prime time. “Others work in laboratories but have yet to be scaled up for use in the real world.”

4. Revenge of the Electric Car (Chris Paine)

This slick sequel to the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? tracks the resurgence of electric cars and the approaches of General Motors, Nissan, and Tesla to sell them to the masses. The existential battery question surfaces now and then: “The scariest part is can they really get the cost of these batteries down,” a journalist asks. “And will it be something that’s viable long term?” The film is also appealing entertainment: There’s a scene with former General Motors executive Bob Lutz and Tesla chief executive Elon Musk surveying new electrics at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, including “some really strange stuff,” in Lutz’s words, as well as the Nissan Leaf, which Musk tells Lutz he “kind of” likes. In another scene, Danny DeVito mourns the EV1, the subject of Paine’s 2006 documentary, calling it “the coolest car I ever had.” Near the end, DeVito asks whether GM is going to take the new Chevy Volt he’s driving away from him, as it did with his EV1.

5. “A Battery Startup No One Has Heard of Says Its Building a Billion Dollar Factory in North Carolina” (Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom)

Alevo is a battery maker with big plans to start manufacturing a new kind of long-lasting battery at a former cigarette factory in North Carolina. “A lot of startups have underestimated how difficult it is to make new energy technologies at scale, particularly at the low cost needed to compete as a commodity,” writes Fehrenbacher. “It’s surprising that some publications aren’t taking a more skeptical look at the company.”

6. “Not Another Solyndra” (Daniel Gross, Slate)

Battery maker A123 Systems became a symbol of failed government energy policy, awarded millions in grants and going public before filing for bankruptcy in 2012. “But in America, narratives about failure should never end with a bankruptcy filing,” writes Daniel Gross. “Just as it found a profitable new use for its core technology in the utility business, A123 is finding alternative uses for its auto-related technology. Electric cars may not be taking off, but the electrification of cars certainly is.” Gross acknowledges “American taxpayers and shareholders will never get all their money back from their ill-fated investment into A123. But that doesn’t make it a loser.”

7. “Henry Ford and the Electric Car” (Daniel Strohl, Hemmings Daily)

Around the turn of the century, Thomas Edison recognized the potential of batteries to power cars and started developing an alkaline battery that could outdo the lead-acid models of the time. (Versions building on his work were popularized in the 1960s by Energizer and Duracell, and alkalines dominate the consumer market today.) While Edison was working on his new battery, Henry Ford was starting his eponymous car company, and the two men, who were good friends, collaborated on a low-priced electric car, writes Strohl. He follows their twists and turns, and cites reports from the time, including a 1914 New York Times article that quotes Ford confirming rumors of their collaboration: “The fact is that Mr. Edison and I have been working for some years on an electric automobile which would be cheap and practicable.” Strohl’s look at the abandoned project is a reminder of how hard it is to improve battery technology—and how hard it has been to compete with the gasoline-powered engine.