Charging Ahead

To speed along the success of the electric car, improvements in battery chemistry will matter as much as the price of oil.


Batteries are now "part of the clean-tech boom, with all the dewy and righteous credibility of thin-film solar and offshore windmills," Seth Fletcher asserts in Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy. Righteous? Surely. Credible? Maybe.

As Mr. Fletcher tells it, the history of batteries over the past 100 years is basically a series of failed efforts to power automobiles, with a recent fruitful detour into electronic gear. For a century we have been trying, with a mix of countless metals and chemicals, to achieve the perfect recipe for converting stored chemical energy into electrical energy. Mr. Fletcher starts with Thomas Edison and ends with the launch of the Chevrolet Volt hybrid and Nissan Leaf all-electric. Mr. Fletcher, a senior editor at Popular Science magazine, observes that Edison launched a car-powering battery in 1903 "with a level of hype and overpromising that would do today's most egregious vaporware vendors proud."

Electric cars in Edison's day cost up to $5,000, which is about $130,000 in today's dollars. That price is not far from the current base price of the all-electric Tesla Motors Roadster at $109,000. In any case, gasoline engines packed a lot more driving punch, and electric cars died out.

Fast-forward to the 1970s, when the Arab oil embargo and the "energy crisis" revived interest in electric cars. Congress even tried to spur development by passing—over President Ford's veto—the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act in 1976. It is startling to be reminded by Mr. Fletcher that, in the 1970s, Exxon commercialized the first rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, which can store more energy for their size and weight—and hold a charge longer—than other rechargeables. The company's plan: use the batteries to power electric cars for a market that appeared ready to take off. But then oil prices collapsed, major petroleum reserves were discovered, and Exxon sold off its battery division.

While another electric-car "revolution" quietly died, the personal-electronics revolution took off, and new gadgets like the Sony Walkman needed power. Using American technology, Sony radically improved rechargeable lithium-ion batteries and put them into wide use.

As Mr. Fletcher notes, the next electric-car misfire was GM's EV1, developed in the 1990s in response to California's stringent air-pollution regulations. The EV1, powered by massive lead-acid and nickel-hydride batteries, could go as far as 140 miles on a charge. GM built 800 of the cars, leasing them for $349 a month. But the batteries simply did not store enough energy and cost $40,000 to $50,000. GM lost a billion dollars before canceling the program. The company was excoriated for its decision in the tendentious documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" But that's an easy one: The batteries did it.

As the EV1 was being junked, Toyota launched its Prius hybrid in the U.S. in 2000, a car with a gasoline engine assisted by a nickel-metal-hydride battery. By 2011, Toyota had sold more than a million Priuses in the U.S. In 2003, Silicon Valley mogul Martin Eberhard founded Tesla Motors. His aim: build an all-electric car powered by lithium-ion batteries. Despite the advantages of lithium-ion batteries, Mr. Fletcher observes, car companies had shied away from them because of their tendency to ignite. By 2006, the first Tesla was on the road—without incident. Once lithium-ion batteries had been proved in automobiles, GM launched its own concept car, the Volt.

American drivers suffer from range anxiety—the fear that electric cars will run out of juice and leave them stranded. The Volt was designed to address that concern. It is a hybrid driven by an electric motor, but the batteries can be supplied with electricity from a supplementary gasoline engine. The Volt's all-electric range is about 40 miles, though up to 400 miles using its gasoline engine.

President Barack Obama has set a goal of having a million plug-in hybrids like the Volt on American roads by 2015 and is offering hefty tax credits to buyers. Even more generously, the 2009 stimulus package included $2.4 billion in government subsidies to a plethora of start-up battery companies. We've been here before. Almost every president since Richard Nixon, who launched a program to produce (as he declared) "an unconventionally powered, virtually pollution-free automobile within five years," has tried and failed to spur the development of an alternative-energy car. Will Mr. Obama's push work any better?

Mr. Fletcher does a good job surveying this old-yet-nascent industry in the U.S. But he wonders whether, even with all the federal largess, it will be able to compete with Asian battery giants like Panasonic in Japan, BYD in China, and LG Chem in South Korea. Even GM's Volt is powered with batteries built by an LG Chem subsidiary. Some commentators worry that we're going to replace our dependence on foreign oil with a dependence on foreign batteries—and foreign lithium. Bottled Lightning alleviates at least one worry: By taking us to the salt flats of the "Lithium Triangle" in Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina, Mr. Fletcher shows us the abundance of the metal and puts to rest any fears of "peak lithium."

Mr. Fletcher is in love with the Volt. After a test drive, he gushes: "The car, in short, is fantastic." And it is technically sweet. But at $41,000 per copy, will it interest American drivers? As of this month—with the price of gasoline hovering at $4 a gallon—GM has sold only about 2,000 Volts. Still, most other car makers have jumped on the electric bandwagon. The fate of their gamble depends on improvements in battery chemistry and the price of oil. Most of the clean-tech boom—in solar panels, windmills and other projects—has been fueled by government mandates and billions in subsidies. The boom will no doubt go bust when the taxpayer dollars dry up. But Mr. Fletcher makes a good case that the electric-car trend may soon be able to shed its dubious reputation as a public-private hybrid and roll under its own power.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books. This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.