Published: June 08, 2011
When the automobile first emerged at the end of the 19th century, there were two types of cars on the road: gasoline-powered cars and electric cars. And at first, it was unclear which type would attract more drivers.
"Electric cars had some early advantages," says science writer Seth Fletcher. "Gas cars were loud and dirty and nasty, and they had to be started with a hand-crank, which could sometimes backfire and break your arm. And electric cars were clean and quiet and civilized and they worked well in the city."
But the gasoline-powered car slowly improved. And once people started driving longer distances, it quickly won the battle of the roadways.
"If you were out in the country and you ran out of charge [with an electric car], you were stuck," Fletcher says. "If you were driving a gas car, you could stop and get a tin of gasoline from the general store and fill up in a matter of minutes. That [recharging] problem has actually plagued the electric car ever since. If you want to take electricity on the road with you, you have to have a way to store it. And we've always needed better batteries."
Fletcher traces the battle to create a better, long-lasting battery in Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars and the New Lithium Economy. Fletcher tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies that lithium, the material of choice for battery manufacturers, has the potential to transform the automotive industry, power grids and the environment.
Building A Better Battery
But first, engineers must figure out how to create long-lasting, safe and lightweight batteries that don't need frequent recharging — a task that is easier said than done. One of the benefits of a gas tank, Fletcher says, is that liquid hydrocarbon fuels, like gasoline, can be easily stored. But electrons must be stored in a chemical system — the battery — and are part of a highly controlled chemical reaction.
"The key challenge here is to come up with something that will store as much energy as possible, that's really safe and that will last a really long time," Fletcher says. "That has led the major automakers to work with battery makers to find alternative chemistries. There are a bunch of different ways to mix the chemistry to make the various kinds of lithium-ion batteries, but in almost all cases, you're giving something up. You can make it safer, but you're giving up a little bit of energy. You can have more energy, but you're giving up some power. So finding that balance is something that carmakers and scientists are still struggling with, and I don't know if there's any single answer yet."
Currently, electric cars on the market can be recharged overnight and can travel anywhere between 40 and 100 miles per charge, depending on the manufacturer. But they are still more expensive than comparable gasoline counterparts. That's likely to change, Fletcher says, as technology improves.
"The problem right now is that batteries are built in such small quantities [because] it's such a new thing," he says. "There are billions of lithium ion laptop cells and cellphone cells built every year. But the batteries that go into these cars are so new that they're still expensive. The next step is to scale them up, [and] the prices will come down."
Expanding Charge Capacity
Engineers are also working to increase the charge capacity of batteries so that they will be able to store as much energy as gasoline — meaning cars powered by lithium batteries would be able to travel the same distance as their gasoline-powered counterparts without needing to be recharged.
One concept? A lithium air battery that is powered by a reaction between lithium and oxygen. It has an incredibly high charge capacity and could theoretically store as much energy as gasoline.
"There are a lot of people working on [the lithium air battery] and they will warn you that we don't even know what showstoppers there might be," Fletcher says. "It's at least two decades away. If you talk to the people who are working on this, it's their dream. This ultimate goal of the battery researcher is to match the energy density of gasoline, and lithium air offers one possible way forward toward that." [Copyright 2013 NPR]
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.
Chances are pretty good you've got some lithium on your right now. Besides being used to treat bipolar disorder, lithium batteries power our laptops, iPods and smartphones.
Our guest, science writer Seth Fletcher, says advanced lithium batteries could hold the key to an environmentally sustainable, oil-independent future. In his new book, Fletcher chronicles the quest for batteries efficient enough to make electric cars commercially viable, and he surveys the world's lithium deposits and methods of extracting the metal.
Seth Fletcher is a senior editor at Popular Science magazine. His writing has also appeared in Outside, Salon and other publications. His book is called "Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars and the New Lithium Economy."
Well, Seth Fletcher, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's talk a little bit about electric cars to begin with. It was interesting to read in your book that they were with us at the beginning of automotive history. Tell us a little about that, how far they got.
Mr. SETH FLETCHER (Senior Editor, Popular Science; Author, "Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars and the New Lithium Economy"): Well, when the automobile first emerged at the end of the 19th century, there were electric cars, steam-powered cars, gas-powered cars all sharing the road.
It was unclear which one was going to win out. And in fact, electric cars had some early advantages, which was really gas cars were loud and dirty and nasty, and they had to be started with this hand-crank, which could sometimes backfire and break your arm. And electric cars were clean and quiet and sort of civilized, and they worked well in the city.
You know, they were used as taxis in Manhattan and Philadelphia and a few other cities. But eventually what happened is that gas cars got better, eventually the automatic starter came along. And once people got a taste for touring, as they called it, which is just driving out in the country, one major weakness of the electric car was thrown into stark relief, which is limited range and long charge times.
So if you were driving out in the country, and you ran out of charge, you were stuck. If you were driving a gas car, you could stop and get a tin of gasoline from the general store and fill up in a matter of minutes. That problem has actually plagued the electric car ever since.
DAVIES: OK. Now, there's been interest in electric cars. There was a flurry in the late '70s, which we can talk about, and of course more recently. Tell us why batteries were such a critical element of this technology.
Mr. FLETCHER: You know, you need energy to make a car go, and that's how you store energy in an electric car. I mean, with a gas tank, one of the benefits of gasoline and other liquid hydrocarbon fuels is you can just pour them into a tank or a barrel and let it sit there. It's easy to store.
You can't do that with electrons. They have to be stored in a chemical system, and that's the battery. It's - without getting too technical, it's basically a highly controlled chemical reaction.
It's the best way we've come up with to store electricity. It's a tricky problem. You know, if you want to take electricity on the road with you, you have to have a way to store it.
DAVIES: Now, you tell us in the book that batteries go back to the early 19th century, and they've been made with a variety of different materials, you know, as technology has advanced. What makes lithium particularly well-suited for batteries?
Mr. FLETCHER: Well, it just has intrinsic characteristics that make it the chemist's ideal raw battery material. And the reason for that is because it's the third element on the periodic table, which means it's the lightest solid element, and it's also highly reactive, which means it just - it's so eager to get rid of its outer electron and engage in chemical reactions. And it actually doesn't exist in its pure form in nature. You have to process it out of minerals.
If you've mining for lithium, you're never going to find big arm-sized veins of lithium metal because they just don't exist. That reactivity makes it difficult to deal with, but it also makes it possible to create a really high-energy chemical system. And that's what you want out of a battery.
You want to be able to pack as much energy in the lightest object possible. And lithium, because of these fundamental elemental characteristics, is a very attractive option for doing that.
DAVIES: And while we're at it, what are some of the other interesting uses of lithium outside of batteries?
Mr. FLETCHER: Well, the most famous that everyone asks me about is in psychopharmacology. I mean it's used - lithium carbonate is used to regulate bipolar disorder. It's also used in aluminum alloys for aircraft. You can use it to make, you know, aluminum alloys that are lighter and stronger. It's used in greases and ceramics, glasses.
It's been a specialty chemical for most of the time that we've been using it. Only recently have people really started to pay attention to lithium, and it's because of what's happened first with consumer electronics and now with the re-emergence of the electric car running on lithium-based batteries.
DAVIES: And it used to be added to soft drinks?
Mr. FLETCHER: Yes, actually. That's - it was used as sort of a curative in the late 19th century. I mean, it was a mineral water. And it was added to soft drinks. Actually, 7-Up was originally a lithiated beverage, and it was marketed as a hangover cure.
Eventually, lithium was sort of regulated out of soft drinks, and then - so it became the de-lithiated 7-Up we have today. But, yeah, it was sort of a faddish curative towards the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century.
DAVIES: OK, let's talk about the development of lithium batteries for automobiles. There was a burst of effort in the late '70s to develop electric vehicles and therefore better batteries, I guess driven primarily by the Arab oil embargo and rising gas prices, right?
Mr. FLETCHER: Right. Well, it actually began a little earlier than that, with the - when the smog problem in particularly the Los Angeles basin became so acute that, you know, at least one California politician was talking about an outright ban on the internal combustion engine, which it's kind of shocking to imagine.
You can never really imagine someone proposing banning the internal combustion engine today, but the smog problem was so immediate and so acute that people were talking about this, and car companies and researchers started looking for ways to develop alternatives, among them electric vehicles.
And then that sort of established a base of research and interest from industry and academia that really accelerated when the oil crises hit in the early '70s. And that lasted pretty much throughout the '70s. And it wasn't until the recession hit at the end of the '80s, and then oil became cheap again, and we entered this new era of cheap oil in the booming '80s that nobody really cared about electric vehicles anymore.
Nobody - as long as gas is cheap, there is not much of an incentive to develop alternatives unless, of course, you're concerned about environmental impact from carbon emissions. And that's part of the equation today, of course. But, yeah, it came out of this environmental crisis and then this energy crisis.
DAVIES: So how did lithium batteries become widely used in small electronics?
Mr. FLETCHER: What happened in the '80s in Japan, the consumer electronics boom was beginning, and at the same time, toxic batteries, with mercury and lead and cadmium and other heavy metals, were building up in Japanese landfills, and they were contaminating the environment.
So, Japanese electronics manufacturers were looking for not only just - not only a higher energy battery and a lighter battery, but a less toxic battery.
And Sony eventually picked up some of the research that was already published. And in 1991, they came out with a lithium ion battery as we know it today. And it proliferated. It enabled the proliferation of the cell phone, the laptop. It was one of the major breakthroughs that led to all of the portable gadgets we have today.
DAVIES: And so, what are some of the challenges in making lithium ion batteries big enough to power a car?
Mr. FLETCHER: Well, I mean, you can link a lot of the existing batteries together to power a car. The Tesla roadster, which is that really hot, electric sports car that came out and was unveiled in 2006 by this California start-up, that's actually powered by 6,831 lithium ion laptop cells all wired in series and placed in this giant box and controlled by computer circuitry.
And so they figured out how to do it using the commodity batteries that were already out in the world. The key challenge here is to come up with something that is - that will store as much energy as possible, that's really safe and that will last a really long time.
And that has led the major automakers to work with battery makers to find alternative chemistries. One of the drawbacks of the batteries that are in our laptops and cell phones is that the particular electrochemistry they use has some safety drawbacks.
I mean, you remember the exploding laptops I think it was 2006, a bunch of Sony laptops exploded. Now, if you talk to the guys from Tesla, they will say that's not really a problem, we can engineer the system so that it's safe.
Mr. FLETCHER: But the biggest automakers have decided to go a more cautious route and look for alternative chemistries, which are safer but maybe less energetic. And then they have to come up with ways to package those cells into a big battery that does everything they need it to do.
There are a bunch of different ways to mix the chemistry to make different kinds of lithium-ion batteries. But in almost all cases, you're giving something up.
You can make it safer, but you're giving up a little bit of energy. You can have more energy, but you're giving up some power, which is the ability to dump out energy really fast for accelerating. So finding that balance is something that carmakers and scientists are still struggling with. I don't know if there's any single answer yet.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Seth Fletcher. He's a senior editor at Popular Science magazine and the author of the new book "Bottled Lightning." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Seth Fletcher. He's a senior editor at Popular Science. He's written a new book called "Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars and the New Lithium Economy."
OK, so now that there is renewed interest in electric vehicles because oil has gotten more expensive, because it's considered a national environmental and energy priority, you've got several manufacturers coming up with some new products. The Chevy Volt may be the best known.
Now, let's just get some basic. How is the Chevy Volt different from, say, the Prius?
OK, the Prius is what's known as - it's a conventional hybrid, sometimes called a full hybrid. It has a small battery and a gas engine, and those work together to drive the car. And it can drive on short distances on battery power alone. But we're talking, you know, a couple miles and at low speeds.
That battery is not charged from the grid. It's just charged by the engine. It's this self-sealed system. It cuts back a little bit on gas usage, and it's very good for a lot of applications.
What the Volt does is it takes a much larger battery that charges from the grid, and it has a small gasoline engine that, once that battery is depleted to a certain extent, kicks in and feeds electricity to the battery. It's a plug-in hybrid model.
Now, something like the Nissan Leaf, which is a purely electric vehicle, has no gasoline engine whatsoever. It's just all batteries and motors and plugs straight into the grid, charges from your wall, and that's - those are the ends of the spectrum on hybridization.
And there are a bunch of different ways you can combine batteries, motors and gas engines and diesel engines in between. And I think right now carmakers are trying to figure out which of those is going to be the best bet for the most people.
DAVIES: When you look at a vehicle like the Volt, how long does it take to recharge its batteries when they're depleted? And what's the energy cost to a consumer of doing that, of taking the juice out of their home grid?
Mr. FLETCHER: As a general rule of thumb, these cars can all charge overnight from your 220. You need a dedicated charger. They can also plug straight into a 110 outlet, but it takes a really long time for those to charge. So most people are not going to go for that.
As far as the energy costs, I mean, it depends on the cost of electricity in your area, but they're compared to four plasma TVs or an appliance like a washing machine or a dryer, something like that. There are numerous studies comparing the cost per mile of gasoline versus electricity. And I believe in almost all cases, it is cheaper.
DAVIES: The electricity is cheaper.
Mr. FLETCHER: Yes, yes.
DAVIES: Now, you actually went and drove an electric car. You drove the Chevy -I guess you've driven several of them, right?
Mr. FLETCHER: Yes, yes.
DAVIES: Tell us: Is it a fundamentally different experience from driving an internal combustion vehicle?
Mr. FLETCHER: You know, yes and no because what is fundamentally different is that it's silent. When you get in and turn the car on, you don't hear, you know, you don't hear an engine firing up. It's just on. You hit the accelerator, and you go. The only sound is rolling tire noise and wind noise.
And so, that's very different. And another thing that's different is that they are very fast from a stop because they - one quirk of the electric motor is that they have all of their torque available immediately.
So from a stoplight, a car like the Nissan Leaf, which has a top speed of like 90 miles an hour, 94 miles an hour, will feel very fast compared to any other hatchback like it when you're just driving around town.
So they're fun to drive. And I say no, they're not fundamentally different because the carmakers have worked very hard to get around the traditional of the electric car as a golf cart. They worked very, very hard to make the Volt and the Leaf in particular familiar.
You know, when you get in, it feels like a nicely appointed sort of midrange compact car. It feels familiar, with enough high-tech flourishes that you feel like you're in something special. You have the unique drive characteristics of an electric car. But it's not going to freak people out. They want it to be comfortable and alluring.
DAVIES: And are these cars now widely available? Can you get them in showrooms?
Mr. FLETCHER: In some places. I wouldn't say widely available, but they're being gradually rolled out and will eventually be available nationwide.
Right now, you can get them in East Coast, West Coast markets, certain cities throughout the country, Colorado, you know, Austin, Texas. You can get Leafs in Nashville because Nissan is there. And so, it's a very big thing for that community.
But the reason they've done this gradual roll-out is because buying an electric car and owning one is different enough that they want to have time to hand-hold people through the process at the beginning.
They don't want any horror stories of people getting a car and not knowing how to charge it and trying to install their own charger in their garage, and it shorts out their, you know, their wiring.
They want to take this slowly and make sure that the dealers are trained, that the technicians are trained. And so that's why it's a slow - that's part of the reason why it's a slow roll-out.
So right now, I think that Nissan has said it's going to build 50,000, I believe, 50,000 or 60,000 Leafs for the 2011 model year, and there will be about 10,000 Volts throughout the country in 2011.
DAVIES: And how do the costs compare to a comparable gas-powered car?
Mr. FLETCHER: They're more expensive, and that's one of the drawbacks right now. They're not ludicrously expensive, but the Volt starts at $41 and change, $42, and if you get options, it gets up closer to $44,000.
There's a $7,500 federal tax credit, which brings that down. There are state tax credits, too. Colorado has a very good one, and so does California, for example. But they're more expensive.
And the Leaf starts at roughly $32,000, between $32 and $34, depending on the options. So they are more expensive than conventional comparable vehicle, but that's - I believe that's just the price to pay for new technology.
I mean, the problem right now is that batteries are built in such small quantities, it's such a new thing. You know, of course there are billions of lithium ion laptop cells and cell phone cells built every year.
But the batters that go into these cars are so new and built in such small quantities that they're still expensive. And the next step is to scale them up, and the more of these cars that are built, the more batteries that are built, the prices will come down.
I think that the automakers understand that soon, probably within the next five years, they really need to be able to sell these cars without government subsidies because you can't have something that's subsidized forever.
DAVIES: So let's talk about what it'll take for electric cars to be attractive not just to people who are affluent and particularly interested in environmental or energy savings or, you know, are gadget buffs, but folks that - just ordinary consumers that want, you know, value, power, economy.
One thing that would help would be cheaper batteries, and that will happen as production gears up, right?
Mr. FLETCHER: Yes, yeah.
DAVIES: And then what about the relatively short range that it has? I mean, how far can one go on one of these now, and what are the prospects for changing that?
Mr. FLETCHER: Well, in a purely electric car like the Nissan Leaf, you can go 100 miles, roughly. If you're driving fast on the interstate, less. If you're driving cautiously around town, a little more. You know, I've heard of people getting 120 miles out of it.
But that limitation means that you're not going to take a road trip, and it's going to be a second or third car primarily for most people. And the Volt of course gets about 40 to 50 miles off of a charge, less of course if you're driving, again, fast on the highway. But then it has the backup gas engine to extend that range.
And I think that is part of the reason - that range limitation, once again is part of the reason that many people are betting on cars like the Volt and other plug-in hybrids to be the sort of fix-all solution for most American drivers. Around town, you never use any gas, but you can take a road trip - you can still take a road trip in it if you don't mind buying gas.
DAVIES: Seth Fletcher's book is called "Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars and the New Lithium Economy." He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.
We're speaking with Popular Science senior editor, Seth Fletcher, about lithium batteries, the prospects for a commercially viable electric car, and the dramatic rise in the extraction and use of lithium. His new book is called "Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars and the New Lithium Economy."
Let's talk about lithium itself, the raw material.
Mr. FLETCHER: Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: What does it look and feel like?
Mr. FLETCHER: Lithium metal is too volatile to exist in nature in its pure form. You have to extract it from minerals. But once you've isolated it, it's a bright silver metal. It's shiny. It's soft. It's sort of like cold brie cheese. And it has to be stored in oil to keep it from reacting with the moisture in the air. Lithium carbonate is the way that it's generally traded in the world market, and this is just a powder that looks like baby powder. And it's sold as a chemical in bags. So those are two primary forms in which you encounter lithium.
DAVIES: OK. And where does one find it? And how is it mined or harvested?
Mr. FLETCHER: The majority of it, right now, at least for batteries, comes from Chile. The Chile - northern Chile in the Atacama Desert is the sort of wellspring of world lithium supply. It's also somewhat true of Argentina and northern Argentina. And then Bolivia has large reserves, but those are untapped. Most of it comes from these high altitude salt lakes in the Atacama Desert. And what has happened over the years, these are ancient salt lakes that dried up and left behind this sponge of salt. And what has happened over tens of thousands of years is that melt water has come down from the Andes Mountains, annually, leaching out minerals from the volcanic rock along the way, eventually it settles in these salt lakes - salt flats, excuse me. And what these companies can do is they just go in and pump the water out. Pump it up, put it in pools that they bulldoze, bulldoze walls of salt, lay down plastic so it doesn't leach back in to salar - salar is Spanish for salt flat -and they let it evaporate in the sun until it's concentrated to about six percent lithium. Then they truck it down to the coast and process it into lithium carbonate, which is the powder looking substance.
DAVIES: So no blasting? No gouging?
Mr. FLETCHER: No blasting. No gouging. No blasting. No gouging. No, it's a pretty gentle process.
DAVIES: No fracking? No toxic chemicals?
Mr. FLETCHER: No fracking. No toxic chemicals. No fracking. No. It's, you know, the Salar de Atacama actually holds a flamingo reserve a few miles north of the largest lithium mines on the planet. And, in fact, it's a little misleading to speak of it as mining. These companies primarily consider themselves chemical companies - chemical processing companies. The SQM, which is the world leader in this market, they actually produce a lot more potassium fertilizer which they get out of the same brine. They get it out at the same time as the lithium. And, in fact, for a long time lithium production piggybacked on the production of potassium for fertilizer, for plant food. Yeah, SQM's number one business is actually specialty plant nutrition. And lithium, until recently, has been a sideline.
DAVIES: Now that there's more interest in electric cars, is there a concern that, you know, the known lithium deposits will be inadequate for our needs in the future?
Mr. FLETCHER: Not anytime soon. I - these things are hard to forecast 100 years out, of course, because nobody knows what's going to happen. But when I was at the Annual Lithium Supply and Markets Conference last January, an analyst got up and basically told all the miners in the audience that there was going to be such an enormous oversupply in the last half of this decade that only the strongest were going to survive. There are a lot of people getting into the lithium mining business right now, but there seems to be more than enough to go around. And so I haven't seen anybody express concern about lithium supplies for any foreseeable reasonable number of these cars, you know, in batteries.
Of course, I'll just point out a misperception. A lot of people speak of lithium as if its oil. They talk about Bolivia or Chile being the Saudi Arabia of lithium. But you don't burn lithium. Lithium is a metal used to make a device that stores energy that's produced by other means. So it can be recycled. The batteries can be reused. There is plenty to go around for quite some time.
DAVIES: And there are lithium deposits in the U.S.?
Mr. FLETCHER: There are. Yeah. There's actually a salt lake source in northern Nevada called Silver Peak. And then there's also a large clay-based deposit in northern Nevada which this Western lithium company is developing. It's interesting. Actually, Chevron discovered this in the 70s when it was thought that lithium might be useful for fusion reactors. And, of course, fusion reactors never came about, but they knew it was there. So this company has now taken it over and they're developing it and they seem to have a fairly good shot at opening up this very large resource here in the United States.
DAVIES: Yeah. And I have to say, I mean I was really fascinated to read your description of what's going on in Bolivia.
Mr. FLETCHER: Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: A lot I didn't know, there, about political currents and how they affect both relations with the United States and the possibilities for lithium extraction there. Just talk a little bit about the politics of resource extraction in Bolivia and how they're playing out.
Mr. FLETCHER: Right. Evo Morales is the president of Bolivia, he is a socialist and he is a Aymara Indian, which the indigenous people it's - Bolivia is - the estimates vary, but I think is 60 percent indigenous. And the people there feel they have gotten pretty thoroughly screwed over by foreign mining interests for hundreds of years, you know, since the conquest in Spanish. And now they're trying to prevent these resources from being exploited by foreign interests. I mean they're paranoid. And they want to develop it themselves. But the problem is that they don't necessarily have the technical expertise it's going to take to make this work.
DAVIES: And they have, you know, potential partners, some of whom want to actually develop not just extraction infrastructure in Bolivia but actually processing, and even on electric car industry?
Mr. FLETCHER: Mm-hmm. They've had a lot of suitors from France, from Japan, from China. As far as I know, they've rebuffed all of them. That was at least the case when I was there last year. For exactly this reason, and it's a very sensitive political issue, domestically, because the people who live in the area around the Salar de Uyuni are very poor and have been known to protest and riot against the mining companies that are operating there. And there's a big regional conflict between the people who live in that area and the people who live in the north, who are sort of in charge of it. So even within Bolivia there's a concern that the people of Potosi, which is the state where the Salar de Uyuni is located, are not going to get their fair shake, or that this is -all the money is going to end up going to the elite in La Paz.
So it's a very complicated domestic situation. And it's almost kind of tragic, because it could potentially be a boon for that area. If - even aside from lithium, they have enormous deposits of potassium, just like in the Salar de Atacama, so this is something they could sell and they can make money and develop the area. But the political situation is so fractious that it's hard to see it happening fast enough and reliably enough for, you know, multinational corporations to really put up with it for too long when there's plenty of lithium to be had elsewhere.
DAVIES: We're talking with Seth Fletcher. His new book about electric cars and lithium batteries is called "Bottled Lightning."
We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Seth Fletcher. He's a senior editor for popular science and the author of the new book "Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars and the New Lithium Economy."
Now are lithium batteries used to store power from electric grids?
Mr. FLETCHER: They certainly can be. And battery companies are hoping that this is going to be a big new market. And it's, right now it's just being done in grid scale storage - grid scale energy storage is what this emerging industry is called. And right now it's just being done in a couple R&D projects here and there. But the idea is basically that if you take a tractor-trailer and you fill it with lithium ion batteries and they're placed in server racks, you walk - it looks like the command post for some secret, you know, CIA supercomputing project. You walk in and it looks like a server farm in a tractor-trailer.
But those are filled with lithium ion batteries being cooled by fans. And these can be used to store electricity from solar farms, from wind power. And the idea is that by storing energy from renewable sources like this, to use whenever you want it, you can make intermittent sources like solar and wind much more reliable. Because the problem, of course, with solar is that the sun doesn't always shine. The problem with the wind is that the wind doesn't always blow. And sometimes the energy that is generated when the wind is blowing isn't used. So if you can store it, then you can develop a much more reliable source of energy from renewable sources. And the electric power industry is very interested in this.
DAVIES: Do advances in battery technology hold the prospect of, kind of, transforming the electric grid in the way we get and store and use domestic energy?
Mr. FLETCHER: It certainly could. I mean the grid is such a huge and complicated and antiquated system that storage really needs to be a part of any reinvention of the grid. And cars actually can play a certain role in that. I mean one dream, and this is technically difficult but a lot of people are working on this, is the idea of they call it V2G or vehicle-to-grid. And the idea being that if you have your electric car plugged in and do you have a smart meter, and the smart grid can not only decide when the most efficient time to charge your car is; but if it suddenly needs energy it could even pull some from your battery and pay you for it. That's technically difficult and a long way off. But ultimately, you know, the dream here is to have this smart system where energy is stored instead of wasted in giant grid batteries and in cars, and it moves omni-directionally. You know, it's moved around and not wasted and used as efficiently as possible.
DAVIES: Now, of course, one of the arguments in favor of electric cars is that they don't impact the environment when they're, you know, running down the street on electricity. But others say well, you know, there are environmental impacts of producing that electricity in the first place. We get a lot of electricity from coal-fired plants.
Mr. FLETCHER: Well, I mean I think you have to think of electric cars as part of a larger system. I mean if you look at the energy mix of the United States as a whole, not all electricity comes from coal. A lot of it comes from hydroelectric, natural gas. Mile per mile, an electric vehicle emits less CO2 than a gas powered vehicle. You know, if it comes from the dirtiest coal-fired power plant, it's not a dramatic improvement in CO2. But, again, electric cars are part of a bigger system that we need to build. We need to reinvent the grid. We need to move to cleaner energy production. And then electric cars can become, you know, truly zero emission if they are running off of wind or solar.
But you're right. I mean there are trade-offs for all energy production.
DAVIES: If electric cars become far more widely available, would that put stress on a power grid if everybody's plugging in overnight?
Mr. FLETCHER: Not anytime soon. There's a lot of slack electricity in the grid right now. Millions of electric cars could be charged using the energy that just goes sort of unused overnight, and particularly if you get people to charge overnight by, you know, giving them a break on the price of electricity overnight - time of use metering, as it's called. Where there is a potential problem is if you get a bunch of electric cars, say, in a cul-de-sac that has an old transformer, it could blow that transformer. That transformer might need to be replaced, but that's a pretty small problem. I mean transformers are replaced all the time.
You know, if you're talking about replacing all 300 million cars in America with electric vehicles, it's not going to happen for so long that who knows what's could happen in the meantime. The grid could become much more efficient. Who knows what we'll be generating electricity with then.
But I'd you ask, you know, people like the Electric Power Research Institute, they will tell you that several million electric vehicles in a grid right now is no problem. Again, if you just need to watch where they are, replace the transformers if they're old, and if they're going in an area where a bunch of electric cars are going in.
DAVIES: At the end of your book you describe some of the cutting edge research into this stuff. And you describe this concept: the lithium air battery.
Mr. FLETCHER: Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: Explain what that is and how it might change things.
Mr. FLETCHER: So the lithium air battery is the dream. It's the ultimate goal for a lot of researchers and it's very far horizon. It's just a battery that reacts on the - it works on the reaction of lithium with oxygen. There are many proposed ways to build one or to design one. But the idea is that it has incredibly high potential charge capacity. So it could be - it could store as much energy - usable energy maybe as gasoline. This is debatable contentious point, but this is what proponents of lithium air will argue that, you know, when you factor in the amount of energy that's lost through, you know, a gas engine and wheels and breaking and everything, lithium air could theoretically match the energy density or at least approach the energy density of gasoline.
Gasoline stores a lot of energy. This is why it has powered our economy for so long. And batteries right now pale in comparison to the energy storage. You know, the amount of energy that you can fit in a gallon of gasoline is pretty tremendous. And lithium air is one of these far horizon chemistries that people see that potentially approaching the energy density of gasoline and that's ultimately what it's going to take for us to have a car that - an electric car that you can hop in and go 500 miles on a charge and then recharge very quickly.
I was at one conference one year when somebody mentioned lithium air, and a bunch of engineers in the audience just laughed. But if you talk to the people who are seriously working on this, they won't laugh. It's their dream. The ultimate goal of the battery researcher is to match the energy density of gasoline and lithium air offers one possible way forward towards that.
DAVIES: Now what the government does or doesn't do can have a powerful impact here both in, you know, regulations which encourage the use of energy-efficient vehicles, as well as, you know, subsidies - either directly to consumers for buying them or, you know, to companies for developing the research and manufacturing capability. Are special interest politics a big part of this?
Mr. FLETCHER: Hmm. Well, the Obama administration is very supportive of the battery industry - battery research, and I'm not sure that that has to do with special interest politics so much as the interest of the people in the administration, particularly Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who is very, a big supporter of the electrification of the automobile, battery research. People who believe in electric cars have the ear of the administration.
But special interest politics, I mean, you could look at the budget debate that's going around right now. There's pressure from one side to cut funding for low emissions vehicles while keeping subsidies for oil companies. And yeah, you see this play out all the time.
DAVIES: Yeah. Just as I listen to you describe the possibility of getting batteries to the point where they really compete with gas-powered engines, I could certainly imagine, you know, existing oil companies paying lobbyists to, you know, defeat subsidies for consumers that buy electric cars and cut back on some of that research money.
Mr. FLETCHER: Absolutely. I'm not sure how much of a direct threat the oil companies right now feel that the electric automobile is. They're insanely profitable and electric cars are going to be produced in small numbers for quite a while. But ultimately, yeah, this is going to be a battle between the people who currently run the energy economy and stand to lose out if we shift to something completely different. How that will play out, I don't know. It'll be very interesting to watch.
DAVIES: Well, Seth Fletcher, it's been really interesting. Thanks so much.
Mr. FLETCHER: Thank you.
DAVIES: Seth Fletcher's new book is called "Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars and the New Lithium Economy." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, Ken Tucker listens to the new album from Brad Paisley.
This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.