Summer Reading

by Meghan Rosen

Cover 15 years ago, General Motors debuted the first fully electric vehicle for lease in the United States. The EV1 was silent, fast, and as aerodynamic as an F-16 fighter jet; but most importantly, it could run between 70 and 150 miles on a single charge. (Toyota’s Prius Plug-in Hybrid, for comparison, has an all-electric range of 13 miles.) Between 1996 and 1999, more than 1000 EV1s were manufactured. 800 were leased out in Arizona and California, and, according to the brand manager at GM, inspired “maniacal loyalty” in their drivers.

Four years later, despite pleas from drivers, and a waiting list of interested customers, GM declared the electric-car program a money loser, and ordered the car’s destruction. Existing EV1s were taken from their drivers, transported to the desert (in some cases, under police protection), and crushed. (Today, a few can be found in museums, but they’ve been disabled so as to never drive again.)

The plight of the EV1 was chronicled in the 2006 documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car?, but Seth Fletcher’s new book, Bottled Lightning, is not just about the the EV1. It’s about the batteries that make electric vehicles a reality, the lithium that powers them, and the players who forge global energy policies. But the long, rocky history of electric cars is where Fletcher is most compelling.

In Bottled Lightning, Fletcher begins his story at the dawn of human knowledge of electricity (in 600 B.C with a Greek philosopher and static electricity), takes it past the invention of the first battery in 1800, through the lithium boom of the 21st century, and ends with a look at the technologies that might make a post-oil society feasible (like batteries made out of printer paper coated with carbon nanotubes, or of molten metals separated by density into Oreo-like layers).

Along the way, he gives us a glimpse into the chemistry of batteries, the history of political unrest in lithium-rich countries, and the policy decisions that incentivized (or hindered) battery research in the US. The details are often intricate, and always meticulously researched, but frequently technologically heavy.

There’s no question that Fletcher, a senior editor at Popular Science, has a deep understanding of the chemistry-driven technologies at the heart of battery research, and he’s not afraid to dive into scientific esoterica other authors may have avoided. At most points throughout the book, Fletcher’s ambitious thoroughness is a strength (for example, rather than simply describing a dispute between lithium battery researchers, he braves the primary literature to translate the ‘scientific smack-talk’ for his readers), at others, it’s a weakness (for those with more interest in electric cars than electrochemistry, Fletcher’s detailed descriptions of the materials science behind potential battery components may feel exhaustive).

At the end of Bottled Lightning, Fletcher acknowledges countless scientists, engineers, industrialists, entrepreneurs, analysts, and experts. Their quotes, Fletcher’s colorful character descriptions, and his accounts of fascinating trips spent researching the book (from the ‘endless’ salt flats of Bolivia to Chilean lithium plants to industry auto shows in the US) bring energy and levity to a story loaded with technical information.

So what’s the bottom line? If you’re looking for a thought-provoking, scientifically accurate chronicle of the evolution of the battery, its components, and its part in the story of electric vehicles, Bottled Lightning is an excellent resource. It might not be a book I’d take to the beach, but it’s definitely something I’ll keep as a reference.