Topics: Alternative Energy, Electrical Vehicles, Green Tech, Global Warming, Solid State Physics
This post reminded me of the documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" and the synopsis that powerful forces - the same that fuel climate change denial as it did obfuscation on the dangers of cigarette smoking - are holding back progress because they want no other competition is the "free market" of commerce. Sounds less libertarian and more like targeted socialism for the already well-heeled 1%.
The electric vehicle’s history offers a lesson to the wise: Harvesting the fruits of basic science requires industrial foresight, investment, and a healthy dose of realpolitik.
By 2004 the all-electric vehicle seemed destined for the dustbin of history. General Motors (GM) was recalling and destroying all copies of the EV1, its first-generation electric car, after company officials convinced themselves and regulators that fuel cells, not batteries, were the ultimate power source of the future electric car. Meanwhile, hybrid electrics had begun to proliferate as a more economically viable alternative in the short run. Most batteries were then considered simply too expensive, too heavy, and too weak to power cars on their own. Then came the lithium-ion battery. (See the article by Héctor Abruña, Yasuyuki Kiya, and Jay Henderson, Physics Today, December 2008, page 43.) With higher energy density than older rechargeables—and with the ability to release that energy quickly on demand—the battery is widely viewed as having led a revival of the electric vehicle. Tesla Motors pioneered its use in automobiles with the Roadster, and today most all-electric vehicles have batteries that use some sort of lithium chemistry. Although concerns about safety, cost, and durability linger, few would dispute that the lithium-ion battery has been the chief technological enabler of the renaissance of the all-electric vehicle.
The emergence of the lithium-ion battery did not happen overnight. It was shaped for decades by the influence of materials scientists. It was the product not of a singular eureka moment but of many strands of research tracing back to the rise of the US national security state at the dawn of the Cold War. That’s when John Goodenough, a physicist by training, found himself helping to build a sophisticated air-defense computer for the US military. Although he couldn’t have imagined it at the time, he was about to embark on research that would help found solid-state ionics—the science of inserting and storing ions inside solids without changing their fundamental structures—and contribute to revolutionizing automobile transport.
The many twists and turns that ensued illustrate the unpredictability and contingency of innovation. The story of the long road to lithium-ion power shows how changing social, economic, and environmental conditions after World War II altered the R&D priorities of government and industry. It affords insight into how trends in the energy economy shaped science and engineering over time. And it reveals a hidden history of the shifting fortunes of physics, a discipline that has traditionally relied on state patronage.
Cold War computers, California supercars, and the pursuit of lithium-ion power
Matthew N. Eisler