Bottled Lightning | Seth Fletcher

Summary of: Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy
By: Seth Fletcher


Get ready to dive into the exciting world of batteries and electric cars in Seth Fletcher’s ‘Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy.’ This thrilling journey takes you from the early discoveries of electricity, such as Thales of Miletus’ finding in 600 BC, to the modern era of electric cars and renewable energy solutions. Explore the history of battery inventions, the role of lithium in various applications, and the reemergence of electric cars, driven by environmental concerns and oil dependence. With a straightforward and instructive tone, this summary helps you navigate complex concepts in a user-friendly manner.

The Evolution of Electricity

From the accidental discovery of electricity by the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus to the invention of the electric motor, the evolution of electricity has been a remarkable journey. Thales discovered electrostatic attraction while rubbing amber with a cloth, but the next significant milestone came 2000 years later, when William Gilbert coined the term “electricity.” In 1740, inventors in Leyden, Belgium, created the first prototype batteries using metal-lined jars that could hold an electric charge. However, it was Alessandro Volta who designed the first battery capable of producing an electric current. The connection between electricity and magnetism led to the invention of the electric motor, which powered an array of machines.

Despite the numerous advances, automakers consistently marginalized efforts to address the environmental impacts of their products. Nonetheless, in 1976, Forbes predicted the “rebirth” of the electric car, and it has come to pass. Indeed, the growth of electric cars and the expansion of renewable energy sources represent a pivotal moment in the evolution of electricity and the search for clean, efficient, and renewable energy.

The Rise and Fall of Electric Cars

The invention of the rechargeable battery by Gaston Planté in 1859 and the mass production of acid-lead batteries by Camille Faure in 1881 paved the way for electric cars. Thomas Edison also had a keen interest in electric cars, trying to find storage devices with more power. In 1902, he released “Type E” batteries that powered cars but were recalled due to leaks. Advances in cheaper gas-powered cars and the invention of an automatic starter for gas engines killed the electric car. However, Edison’s addition of lithium hydroxide to the electrolyte solution in 1909 led to the best mix to extend an electrochemical charge. Within four decades of the gas-powered car’s victory, air pollution in many cities reached life-destroying levels. Despite lithium’s past as a popular medicine for curing gout and psychiatric problems, its greatest potential lies in how machines store and apply electrical energy.

The Quest for Better Batteries

From the early recognition of pollution-related healthcare issues to the present day, the world has been on a quest for better batteries. The lithium-ion battery has proved to be the most powerful driver of modernity. Bill Gates estimated that the world’s battery supply would power only 10 minutes of the world’s total electrical needs, indicating severe limitations with current battery designs. However, electricity is cleaner and cheaper than gasoline and can be generated from various sources, such as wind, coal, nuclear, and solar energies.

Experts first recognized the healthcare issues linked with hydrocarbon-related pollution in 1950, and in 1967, Ford engineers created a new design that ushered in the world’s first rechargeable lithium batteries. The US Clean Air Act of 1970 propelled moves to ban gas engines, and oil pricing as a political and economic weapon by Middle Eastern petro-producing countries contributed to renewed interest in electric cars which culminated in solar-powered Swiss watches utilizing Exxon’s new batteries. Despite this progress, the recession of 1979-80, the decline in oil prices in the mid-1980s, and improved auto fuel standards derailed scientific progress in batteries and solar panel manufacturing.

Revolutionizing Technology

Portable devices’ popularity in the 1980s propelled battery development, with Sony-Eveready’s lithium-ion battery overtaking the market. Despite American physicist John Goodenough’s innovation in lithium batteries and pursuit of selling them uncharged, the U.S. phone companies failed to anticipate the rise of cellphones. However, in 1990, Sony-Eveready’s breakthrough came into mass production, revolutionizing technology and powering 95% of the world’s cellphones. Although Goodenough played a pivotal role in innovation, he never received payment for his contribution. Furthermore, it’s debatable whether GM sabotaged the electric car’s debut.

A Brief History of Electric Cars

Electric cars made their debut in the late 1800s, with the first prototype resembling a tricycle and having a top speed of just 4 mph. By 1900, electric trucks, ambulances, and buses were available, and Ford Motors launched in 1903. Despite gasoline-powered cars dominating the US automobile market by 1910, electric cars remained popular well into the 1930s. However, in 2002, GM’s decision to cancel production of its electric EVI cars and recall and crush them is considered one of the company’s biggest PR mistakes.

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