Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Review: Bottled Lightning, super-batteries, electric cars, and the new Lithium Economy

At the core of electric cars is the electricity storage technology being used.  Most commonly electricity is stored in chemical batteries, which store electricity as chemical bonds in a soup of specific elements.  The key thing which is enabling the wave of electric vehicle advances is advances in battery pack technology.  The key factor is energy density measured in "watt-hours" of electricity per kilogram of battery weight, or in some instances we focus on watt-hours per liter of battery volume.  Lithium based batteries store more watt-hours per kilogram than do the nickel-based or lead-based chemistries used in previous generations of battery technology.  This makes lithium based batteries a key technology for freeing our society from fossil fuels, which is the necessary step required to save our climate, environment, and our health.

Seth Fletcher's book, Bottled Lightning, is an excellent history of the development of the lithium battery technology and industry.   His book will give you an in-depth study of the technologies, the difficulties researchers have had in productizing it, and some behind the scenes insight into key corporations involved in developing lithium batteries.

The book starts with "The Electricians" referring to a string of inventors and researchers who played with electricity devices long before a practical use had been found.

For example the Leyden Jar was invented in the 1740's in the town of Leyden Belgium.  It was a "jar" for "storing" electricity, whose inner and outer walls were coated with metal.  We now know this as a Capacitor, a gizmo which stores electricity between a pair of conductors separated by an insulating layer.   Many practitioners of "electrickal arts"  in that period would build these gizmos for experimentation.  For example Benjamin Franklin learned of its power on Christmas 1750 when he wanted to use a Leyden Jar to kill a holiday turkey and instead zapped himself instead.  There were several other inventors such as Luigi Galvani, Alessandro Volta, William Nicholson, Giuliano Pancaldi, Anthony Carlisle, James Clerk Maxwell, Hans Oersted, Gaston Plante, and Camille Alphonse.  They each made their contributions, with Alphonse being the developer of practical rechargeable lead-acid batteries.

This history lesson was interesting and it's fortunate that it lasted only one chapter because we have a very modern technology to talk about.

The origins of the lithium battery chemistry arose from a 1972 meeting of "solid state ionics" researchers in which they discussed every battery chemistry they could imagine.  Sodium Sulfur, Lithium Sulfur, Lithium Aluminum Iron Solfide, Zinc Bromine, and more.  That's an interesting era because the U.S. passed its peak of oil production in 1971 and in 1973 was of course the first Arab Oil Embargo.  Supposedly electric vehicle and battery research was "expanding rapidly" at GM, Ford, Chrysler, American Motors, Toyota, Daimler-Benz, VW, Bosch, Siemens, Fiat and other places.

This leads to an interesting attribute of Bottled Lightning. Rather than be a comprehensive history of the entire industry the book focuses on specific companies, specific products, and on specific technologies within the lithium battery field.

For example in the 1970's era we learn about research at Exxon by Michael Stanley Whittingham.  His team developed and commercialized the first rechargeable lithium battery.  They went through several designs some of which were explosive.  Their first actual product was a rechargeable watch battery, but they had their eyes on a bigger goal.  If things had gone their way electric cars would have been developed by an oil company, Exxon, but the recession of 1978-1979 killed this idea as Exxon was forced into focusing on their core business which resulted in shutting down many projects such as their lithium battery business.

In this book the key juncture in developing lithium batteries was the cell phone.  How?  Remember the shoe-box sized cell phones of the 80's?  The slim thing you have in your pocket, not to mention modern wonders like the iPad, would have been impossible if lithium batteries had not been developed.  It's for the same reason that while one can build an electric car with lead-acid batteries, its not a practical choice.  Energy density is the key that makes an electrical gizmo practical or impractical.  It doesn't matter if that gizmo is your cell phone, lap top, or car, a battery with high energy density will make that gizmo more practical than if the battery had a low energy density.

In the era of the 1980's and 1990's Bottled Lightning focuses on the U Texas Austin laboratory led by Dr. Goodenough in which many lithium battery advances were made.  A critical development was the lithium-iron-phosphate chemistry which is widely regarded as one of the safe lithium chemistries.

If we can take a detour for a moment - lithium is the lightest metal in the periodic table of the elements.  The light weight is what makes it attractive for batteries.  It also has the characteristic that when pure lithium metal is exposed to air, you get explosions and hot fires.  Bottled Lightning indeed!  Most of the time between the 1970's and today was spent exploring among the safe lithium chemistries.  A key component in safe lithium chemistries is to not use pure lithium metal, but to mix the lithium with other compounds.  Which is why we have the myriad of lithium chemistries as researchers trade off between various factors including safety, recharge rate, power density and energy density.

The rest of Bottled Lightning focuses on the Chevy Volt, LG Chem (Compact Power), Ener1, A123 Systems, the patent battle between A123, UT Austin and Hydro-Quebec, and lithium mining in Bolivia, Chile, and Nevada.  We get some behind-the-scenes insight into the choices leading to the Chevy Volt and some of the battery companies.  There's a lot of electric vehicle history that is not discussed but it seems to limit the book.  By focusing on the specific companies we still learn a lot, while keeping the book to a readable length.

The book is rounded off by a most interesting tour of lithium mining operations in Bolivia, Chile and Nevada.  It's very interesting to learn that lithium is extracted in evaporation ponds on salt flats.  Lithium is an abundant element, but the places where it appears in highest concentrations are on specific salt flats.

Bottled Lightning is highly recommended reading if you want to understand the lithium battery industry and the key role it may play in the future of the gizmos our society builds for itself.


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