The Powerhouse: A Discussion of the Battery War (w/video)


On February 5, Viking released “The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World”. The book “…follows a small group of scientists engaged in a battery war among four nations — the U.S., China, Japan and South Korea.”

*Available for purchase on here

Using the book as a springboard, MIT Technology Review has a fascinating story entitled “Why We Don’t Have Battery Breakthroughs” …which explores some of the cases and instances of companies that have touted, and been funded on claims of revolutionary breakthroughs in battery technology only to fizzle out after repeated failures to deliver on claims and repeatable performance.  The discussion focuses on the challenges of battery technology, the need for huge industrial and research backing, and the tendency for small, inter-related issues of relatively unknown and little-understood chemical interactions dooming certain breakthroughs to failure.

Author Steve Levine

Author Steve Levine

Discussing Levine’s example of Envia, a company with flawed breakthrough battery tech, MIT TR states:

“Within months, GM licensed the technology and signed an agreement to support its development, gaining the right to use any resulting batteries. The deal was potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Envia, LeVine writes. But soon Envia was getting frustrated messages from GM engineers who couldn’t reproduce the startup’s results. The year after the announcement, the deal was scuttled. Envia’s impressive battery had been a fluke.”

Also, Levine and MIT TR discuss the A123 case:

“But reaching the needed volume could prove difficult. A123 has signed contracts to supply batteries for several vehicles over the next few years, including one with GM for its upcoming Spark. But it’s not clear how well the new vehicles will sell—EV sales so far have been disappointing—or whether A123 can raise enough money to stay afloat long enough. It’s also not clear whether A123 will hold onto these customers. Automakers need to be able to count on a company being around for many years to fulfill warranty obligations, and A123’s financial troubles could scare some of them off. “

MIT Technology Review references two of their own stories: “The Sad Story of the Battery Breakthrough that Proved Too Good to Be True“, discussing Envia,  and “What Happened to A123?“, both must-reads if you’re looking for some context.  However, that somewhat misses the mark of Levine’s book.  Levine, a veteran war correspondent, describes it as covering a “war unlike any other I’d experienced”, involving “20 countries in all”.  For a little better picture of this war and what the book’s about, see this “trailer” video:

Levine will also be making an extensive book tour (follow those dates here). Other books by Levine include “The Oil and the Glory: The Pursuit of Empire and Fortune on the Caspian Sea“, and “Putin’s Labyrinth: Spies, Murder, and the Dark Heart of the New Russia“.

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8 Comments on "The Powerhouse: A Discussion of the Battery War (w/video)"

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IMO batteries are the ultimate technology teaser. It seems so simple the problems seem so solvable yet the progress feels so incremental.

Today’s BEV’s really aren’t that far from the mainstream, I still think if the LEAF had 30% more range, cost 30% less and there was 30% more charging infrastructure we could see a massive uptake of the car. Even just cheaper or more choice of body shapes from more manufacturers would make a big difference.

I’d put my money on Nissan’s, GM’s or Tesla’s engineers improving everything but the battery and getting us to a mainstream product before going with a national labs latest “cure for cancer” battery technology. Although I think that’s the point the government invests in the high risk break through stuff that would change the world and the corps. invest in the engineering dead certs. We certainly wouldn’t have got to the Leaf or the Model S if both ends of the innovation chain hadn’t done their bit.

Interesting history piece published tomorrow that looks at just how the lithium ion battery came to us, along wit a fair amount of surrounding corruption.

If a guy says that the super battery will merely “change the trajectory of climate change, making it less apocalyptic,” I trust him not to exaggerate or sugar-coat things. I may have to take a look at this book.

In the face of Republican protection of the Kleptocracy, I’ll take even this as progress.

It does really point out that there must be a genetic difference between the criminal mind and the normal mind. Short term profit ahead of even their children’s interests because even criminals have children.

Repubs create the shitpile, and Dems have to clean it up, and get blamed for it.

I just read this book a few days ago. It is outstanding, pretty much a must-read for any regulars here. Levine not only possesses a deep understanding of the issues, his ability to put it in context is impressive.

He also write really well, and tells the important human interest side. This is an excellent book, on par with Tracy Kidder’s “The Soul of a new Machine”.

Great review, and congrats on your magazine release! I saw them in Brooklyn!

Thanks Nicholas. Next issue will be even better.

The Powerhouse is well worth reading. LeVine has the best command of the subject of anyone I’ve read so far.