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A comprehensive account of the development of battery technology that made the modern electric car viable,
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This review is from: Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy (Hardcover)
Comprehensive, very well-written, and reads fluidly. As the title suggest, the book's focus is on rechargeable battery technologies and how the development of lithium-ion batteries made possible the launch of the first mass market electric cars in more than 100 years. The book scope covers events until around January 2011, right after the market launch of the Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf in the United States, so it is one of the most updated books on this subject.
Be aware that at some points Mr. Fletcher gets carried away with technical explanations regarding how the different battery technologies work or describing battery chemistry or production processes, and thus, some basic to intermediate knowledge of chemistry and physics comes very handy. Nevertheless, the layman can safely skip these paragraphs without missing the main storyline; you just need to know that there are technologies A, B or C, and chemicals L, K and M.
The book provides a brief historical overview from the discovery of electricity, to the invention of the battery to its widespread use at the beginning of the automobile age, when one third of automobiles were electrically-powered. Here Mr. Fletcher pressed pause and explains in more detail key developments in battery technology, Edison efforts for a better battery and his discovery of the potential of lithium, until the electric car demise due to the invention of the electric self-starter and widespread adoption of the internal combustion engine. A few chapters ahead, he completes the history of the evolution of the electric car and the barriers that hindered its success (not surprisingly most are the same as today). The book then present the different uses of lithium in a nutshell, including medicinal ones, and then Fletcher jumps in time to describe the developments of the last fifty years, beginning with all the maladies associated to the gas-powered automobile (tailpipe emissions and city smog, oil prices, national security, etc.).
And here the book turns into a detailed account of the development of the rechargeable batteries used in mobile electronics, beginning with cellular phones through laptops up to the iPods, and the key roles played by Michael Stanley Whittingham and John Bannister Goodenough, whom the book implicitly praise as the fathers of the lithium-ion battery. The historical account of the development of modern rechargeable batteries ends with the ongoing patent wars among the companies doing the latest developments and commercialization of lithium-ion batteries. The book also presents in detail the story of General Motors competition to choose its partner and battery cell supplier for the Chevrolet Volt, and how it ended as a competition among two strains of lithium-ion battery chemistry. I have to confess that now I am convinced the Volt development meant a real technological breakthrough.
I particularly enjoyed the chapters dealing with global lithium reserves and production; it is quite comprehensive and presents all the points of view. Mr. Fletcher provides a very realistic perspective and all the facts about the myth of "peak lithium" and also about the exaggerated worries regarding national security concerns regarding lithium supply (changing oil dependence for lithium dependence). The Bolivian and Chilean cases are presented in great detail, with enough historical background and his on site experience to let the reader understand how come their huge lithium reserves (Salar de Uyani and Salar de Atacama) are separated by just a few hundred kilometers but each country has a completely different approach on how to explore their lithium and benefit their peoples.
Despite the good global coverage of the li-ion battery development and technologies, the book's presentation of the electric cars available in the market today is pretty American centric, as Mr. Fletcher focuses mainly on the Chevy Volt's development, a bit on the short-lived tzero, and on the Tesla Roadster. There are occasional mentions to the Nissan Leaf, and just one to the Mitsubishi i MiEV near the end of the book.
Highly recommended for electric car fans but remember that the book focus is on the battery technology not so much about the electric cars, though the Chevy Volt is one of the book's main characters. For those interested in a detailed account of the Volt development, do not miss Larry Edsall's Chevrolet Volt: Charging into the Future.
PS: Also, do not miss the recently published High Voltage: The Fast Track to Plug In the Auto Industry by green car journalist Jim Motavalli.