Seth Fletcher's Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy, sounds heavy. Actually, it reads like a thriller and is a must read.
As the twenty-first century shifts to renewables, grappling to cut back environmental degradation and choking air pollution, enter COVID-19 to present a glimpse of a world freed of noxious emissions, of blue skies and clear water. The case for lithium as the carbon-free power option of the future couldn't get any stronger: the key to an environmentally sustainable, oil-free future.
Bottled Lightning is timely. It outlines the significant role lithium could play in letting us harness the energies of the sun and wind, and use them as we need. Seth Fletcher describes how the metal has become one of the most sought after resources, being as it is the most effective means currently known to store these energies. Lithium-ion batteries will surely be one of the greatest industries of the twenty-first century.
As a portable energy source, the electric battery has always been a tantalizing goal, more so for car builders. Bottled Lightning starts with the invention of the battery and follows up on the hundreds of chemicals that have been investigated as constituents, and then proceeds through the many failed attempts at the electric car. Now lithium, in a modern avatar, takes center-stage with electric promising to be the mobility of the future. The pace set by Fletcher, as he follows the journey of lithium from its mining in some of the most uninhabitable places on earth to the labs of MIT and Stanford. The next big business opportunity and the race to capture it, comes close to a thriller. Fletcher intersperses the travelogue style narrative with inputs from chemists, geologists, and automobile engineers; he captures the business deals as well as the intrigue in political spheres; the environmental movement linked with the rise and fall of the electric vehicle and of course the well known struggle between first-world countries in need of natural resources and the impoverished countries where those resources are found. Many narratives, all tied by the common thread of lithium.
Fletcher puts across an altogether engrossing and important story of a scarce resource, ubiquitous in the twenty-first century lifestyle which is completely dependent on its laptops, iPods, e-Readers and smart phones — all powered by lithium batteries. He reveals the conspiracies to make electric cars untenable in the past, then goes on, towards the end of the book, to describe the successful roll-outs of the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S. Ending on a strong note, he observes that the US as a country has ceased to be the global industrial leader and has allowed the cleantech industries - solar, wind, batteries, basic energy research among others - to be taken over by the Chinese. "We are not leaders, we are consumers," he says, "and have failed to participate in what promises to be one of the greatest industries of this century."
Bottled Lightning is a gripping insight into lithium, the future mode of energy storage that will probably power the industrial world's huge energy needs, and at the same time cut back on oil dependence and its polluting effects.
He lives in Brooklyn, NY.