The Nobel Committee Dreams of a Post-Fossil-Fuel Future

Mark P. Mills

Silicon technology launched the computer age. But it took a breakthrough in chemistry to untether computers from desktops and connect over three billion people on earth to the Internet. Hence the well-deserved 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, shared by three scientists, for the lithium-ion battery.

Few transformations in history have been as profound as the still-unfolding mobile Internet. It wouldn’t have happened if every smartphone were the size of a hardcover book and weighed two pounds, which is where we’d be with pre-lithium batteries.

In an understatement of epic proportions, the Nobel committee observed: “Lithium-ion batteries are used globally to power the portable electronics that we use to communicate, work, study, listen to music and search for knowledge.” Lithium-enabled portability has democratized banking and shopping, unleashed social media, upended politics, and created entirely new navigation-based services, and is on track to revolutionize and personalize health care.

But the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences reserved its hyperbole for the claim that batteries’ ability to “store significant amounts of energy from solar and wind power” brings us closer to a “rechargeable world” and a “fossil fuel-free society.” Except they can’t.

Set aside smartphones and consider: Simple arithmetic shows that in order to store one day’s worth of global energy use, one would need a quantity of batteries that all the lithium factories in the world could not produce in 900 years.

Today, Asian nations are furiously building new battery factories, with a forecast 400 percent increase in output within the decade. But even that still won’t dent humanity’s energy=storage needs, not even if we limit our focus to cars and grids, which account for roughly half of all energy use. And that says nothing about costs.

Using today’s Nobel-class lithium magic, it still costs over 100 times more to store energy in a battery than it costs to store the same amount of energy as natural gas or oil. Even a twofold improvement in lithium technology won’t come close to closing that cost gap and bring us any closer to a “rechargeable” and “fossil fuel-free” world.

Storing consumables — for weeks, not just a few days — has been central to civilization since pre-history, whether it’s water, materials, food, or fuel. Most are easy to store, but not so electricity. Electrons, as one may recall from high-school physics, are like-charged and vigorously repel each other. Clever physics and engineering are required to convince huge quantities of electrons to “cohabit.”

Innovators have been trying, since ancient times, to “catch lightning in a bottle” — an expression attributed to Benjamin Franklin. While archaeologists at the Baghdad Museum discovered a Mesopotamian battery dated to 250 b.c., the modern battery dates to 1800 (Italian physicist Alessandro Volta) and to 1859 with the lead-acid battery (French physicist Gaston Planté). The 1970s discovery of a lithium option (by a physicist and two chemists) was a huge leap, but far from enough to meet planetary aspirations.

Nonetheless, this Nobel Prize will likely inspire policymakers eager to embrace more programs to mandate and subsidize greater use of grid-scale batteries. Such efforts would be far better directed toward basic research, which, after all, provided the genesis of the lithium battery. Such research is where great leaps have their origins. And it bears noting that it took nearly two decades after the lithium breakthrough before commercialization began, and another two decades before the technology could power cars for the 1 percent.

Even so, doubtless fermenting in the mind of a brilliant researcher somewhere on earth today is the germ of a future Nobel for yet another breakthrough in storing electrons. It would indeed change the world if one could store electricity as easily and inexpensively as, say, loading oil in a barrel.

Meanwhile, we’ll have to settle for the fact that the lithium-enabled mobile Internet is spurring economic growth and raising standards of living around the world. Of course, in no small irony, such growth propels even greater energy use in a world that is, for the foreseeable future, mainly fossil-fueled.

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