August 12, 2011 • Electricity, Emerging Technology, Energy Efficiency, Energy Innovation, Perspectives, Sustainability

Charge it up! Battery power of the future

by AmyHiggs

When I was but a wee tot, I really, really wanted a pink, battery-powered Barbie car. I coveted. Oh, yes. My parents, however, had sense enough not to shell out $400 for a piece of plastic that zipped along at 0.2 miles an hour and that I likely would have plowed into the family dog as soon as I took the wheel. I had to settle for a “manual” toy car that I powered myself through a hole in the floorboard — a la “The Flintstones.” I probably got going faster in that thing than I would have in the Barbie-mobile. I definitely got more exercise!

I hadn’t thought about those childhood toys in years, until I listened to an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air back in June. The host talked to the senior editor for Popular Science magazine, Seth Fletcher, about his new book, “Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars and the New Lithium Economy.” Fletcher believes that “advanced lithium batteries could hold the key to an environmentally sustainable, oil-independent future.” Read more here.

These days, my family uses a LOT of batteries. With remote controls, flashlights, toys, handheld video games and Xbox 360 controllers, it seems like I am always picking up AAs at Target. And then there are our three cell phones, each of which takes a lithium battery. Until I heard this recent story on NPR, that was my only exposure to lithium as a source of energy. Growing up, lithium was only an element I learned about in chemistry class or a drug prescribed by psychiatrists. It certainly had nothing to do with energy efficiency, energy cost reduction or going green.

Seth Fletcher gave me a whole new perspective. He touched on the history of batteries, lithium use in America and electric cars.

Did you know that in the early days of the automobile during the late 1800s, there were electric, steam-powered and gas-powered cars all sharing the road? (I truly thought the invention of the electric car was a recent one.) Or that lithium was added to soft drinks in the 19th century? Fletcher said, “7-Up was originally a lithiated beverage, and it was marketed as a hangover cure.” This made me giggle a little.

But the interview wasn’t all fun facts or a look backward. Fletcher touched on the challenges of electric cars in the near future as well. One concept he would like to see introduced is a lithium air battery powered by a reaction between lithium and oxygen. It has a very high charge capacity and could theoretically store as much energy as gasoline. This could combat the current challenge of having to frequently charge today’s electric cars.

Unfortunately, it’s at least two decades away. “If you talk to the people who are working on this, it’s their dream,” he said.

I say, stop dreaming and get to work! Forget the darn Barbie car. I’m ready for the grown-up version. I still might go with pink, though, just for nostalgia’s sake.

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