This past week I attended a presentation and book signing by Steve Levine, who was promoting his new book, The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World. Steve Levine was joined in the presentation by Jeff Chamberlain, Deputy Director of Development & Demonstration for the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR).
The Powerhouse tells the story of a race to develop a super-battery that will “undermine Russia’s Vladimir Putin, endanger Saudi Arabia’s ruling family, threaten OPEC and transform China…”. Levine developed his material while “embedded” for two years in the JCESR program at Argonne National Laboratory among many of the scientists who figure prominently in the book.
Based on the talk by Levine and Chamberlain and a quick skim (so far) of the book, The Powerhouse seems like an interesting read and a good insight into the science and many of the personalities driving the progress being made today in advanced battery technology.
But my concern with the book (which is highly qualified as I am still reading it) is that Levine may have sacrificed much of the real story of battery technology in his quest to develop high drama and a compelling story line. This is hardly a sin in the publishing business. After all, how good is a book if it does not sell? But in this case there is a more substantial danger.
It is certainly possible that scientists at Argonne or elsewhere will suddenly discover a new technology that transforms the science of advanced batteries and disrupts the economics of energy. That “super-battery” discovery might help bring down Putin, threaten OPEC, transform China and solve any number of other problems in the world.
But the more likely scenario is that there will be no momentous breakthrough, no transformative moment in battery technology. Instead over the next few decades we are likely to see slow and steady progress made in a number of the technologies that scientists are already reasonably familiar with today. Step by step, battery scientists and battery companies will simply get better at doing what they are already doing today.
While slow, steady progress in battery technology over decades may lack the sexiness of a super-battery discovery, the drama of an international battery race, or the exuberant thrill of a Moore’s Law, it will nevertheless be transformative. Improvements of just a few percent a year in the energy density of lithium batteries over decades will transform the world of energy just as assuredly as will the super-battery of Steve Levine’s imagination.
We should continue to invest in the race to discover the super-battery. Sudden, transformative discoveries are always possible and never made without effort. But we must not allow that race to distract us from the basic blocking and tackling from which most of the advances in advanced electrochemical energy storage are likely to come.