Better Batteries Will Save the World

Too bad they’re impossible to make.

By Farhad Manjoo

Nissan Leaf. Click image to expand.Will batteries ever be able to compete with the stored power of gasoline?In the early 1970s, the research arm of Exxon hired a promising young engineer named Michael Stanley Whittingham and asked him to invent something—anything—that could reduce the company’s dependence on crude oil. Whittingham and a team holed up at an Exxon R & D lab in New Jersey, and, as engineers are wont to do, started mixing together chemicals to see what would happen. When they injected potassium into the rare metal tantalum, they noticed something extraordinary—the resulting mixture had an extremely high capacity to store energy.

Over the next few months they continued tinkering with various metals. Whittingham’s team replaced tantalum with titanium, and because potassium was hazardous to work with, they switched it for lithium. When they were done, Whittingham raced to Exxon’s headquarters to report to the board that they’d created something amazing. It was the first lithium-based battery that worked at room temperature, and it had the potential to upend the entire energy business.

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