The Oil and the Glory

Book Review: Seth Fletcher’s “Bottled Lightning”

In 1972, Exxon hired a 31-year-old chemist with a raft of fancy university degrees to research anything his heart dreamed up — except oil. The company was looking to diversify out of petroleum, and M. Stanley Whittingham — a Stanford post-doctoral fellow with undergraduate and graduate degrees from Oxford University — was among a slew ...

554003_fletcher_02.jpg

In 1972, Exxon hired a 31-year-old chemist with a raft of fancy university degrees to research anything his heart dreamed up — except oil. The company was looking to diversify out of petroleum, and M. Stanley Whittingham — a Stanford post-doctoral fellow with undergraduate and graduate degrees from Oxford University — was among a slew of top-rate minds hired to figure out how.  It wasn’t long before Whittingham was wrestling with tantalum disulfide, and emerging with a big breakthrough in battery technology based on lithium. Others including General Motors, Sohio and Argonne National Laboratory were developing lithium-based batteries at the same time, but only Whittingham’s invention worked at room temperature. So it was that Exxon — the most profitable oil company in history — became the first commercial manufacturer of rechargeable lithium ion batteries. Their appearance seemed to be serendipity. In 1976, Forbes declared that "the electric car’s rebirth is as sure as the need to end our dependence on imported oil." As we all now know, that exuberance was dead by the end of the decade. Japan later picked up Exxon’s detritus and made lithium-ion batteries a fabulously profitable industry, but for everyone else, they were old news.

Now we are in an age that sounds eerily similar to those days three decades ago. Yet Seth Fletcher reports that this time may be different: Oil prices are higher, and there is more concern about fuel economy, not to mention alarm about global warming — and 9/11. Plus, batteries are much more advanced — electric cars have reached commercial critical mass, he writes.

Fletcher, a senior editor at Popular Science magazine, clearly sides with the scientists and engineers who occupy this tightly written book, with 205 pages of text — he hopes they are right, and that the era of oil winds down. But he does not fall into the technology-writer’s trap of becoming gee-whizzy about his subject, which is just the right tone. This is a well-written, smart and — when Fletcher gets rolling in the last quarter of the book — rollicking story. In giving us the history, the science, the business and the characters without veering off into irrelevant territory, it is the book that Henry Schlesinger’s interesting but ultimately gimmicky The Battery, published last year, was not.    

Fletcher starts with the history — the invention of the battery by Alessandro Volta in 1800, the first practical rechargeable battery, and Thomas Edison’s introduction of lithium to battery chemistry. Lithium, he writes, is "silvery, white and soft," and in a tactile sense "like old camembert cheese." While not quite appetizing, that seemed to make lithium-ion a friendlier and easier to grasp subject. This book would also have been lesser absent Fletcher’s confident dispositions on the science, sprinkled throughout the book. And we get the scale of the problem with facts such as this one, quoted from a speech by Bill Gates: all the currently existing batteries in the world combined are capable of meeting just 10 minutes of our global electricity demand.

One of the most interesting sections is one on a patent war — a sure sign of an up-and-coming technology — that erupted among the inventors of a lithium-ion technology involving phosphate. But in fact, writes Fletcher, the whole history of batteries has been one of "litigation, patent disputes, overpromising, and get-rich-quick hype." A gentleman named Gustave Philippart is described as a "perfect evildoer." Edison, Fletcher writes, summed up batteries as a technology that coaxed out a man’s "latent capacity for lying." The center of the current row is A123, a super-successful Boston-based battery manufacturer. As I was preparing this review, I happened to share a glass of wine with Yet-Ming Chiang, a co-founder of A123 who is profiled by Fletcher. Chiang had not seen pre-publication galleys, and laughed as he read a few pages. He complimented the fact-checking stage of the book’s publication in which he was telephoned and grilled by a former New Yorker researcher about the A123 section.

The only strange part of the book in my view was the closing 50 pages, in which Fletcher takes off to the "Lithium Triangle" of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, specifically the latter two countries. There is no lithium shortage, as some other writers have suggested, Fletcher says, but there are serious challenges to getting the lithium out of the ground. Fletcher delivers this section with brio. That is probably a function of getting out of the archive and lab and into the field. Yet the terrain is pretty tame. In the end, Fletcher treats it like the Heart of Darkness, though it is not — a forgivable lapse he no doubt will not commit in his next book.

The lithium-ion battery is at the center of a profound global technological rivalry. Fletcher ends his book with a look at how — 211 years after the battery’s invention — we are practically speaking just at the beginning of its potential.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola