(Chris Devlin) #1

207


FORTUNE.COM // JUNE .1 .19


government subsidies—which is to say that
it’s risky and anyone’s to win. A swashbuck-
ling band of technologists, bankrolled by
deep-pocketed investors from a Bill Gates–
backed fund to Saudi Aramco, are gun-
ning to get their long-term energy-storage
devices to market first.
At stake in both heats is more than
the fate of some entrepreneurs and their
speculative backers. At stake is the future
of the global economy. Ever since Benjamin
Franklin flew a key on a kite in a lightning
storm, electricity has proved difficult to
store in large quantities. That’s why cars
still run on oil, which can be stored easily
in tanks. It’s why transmission lines still are
required to transport electricity hundreds
or thousands of miles from where it’s gener-
ated to where it’s consumed. And it’s why
the vast majority of electricity still is pro-
duced by burning fossil fuels, which, for all
their environmental downsides, are ruth-
lessly reliable. Flick a switch, the system
springs to life, and the lights go on.
If electricity could be stored in large
amounts at low cost, radical changes could
follow. The electric car, which has fewer
parts than a petroleum-powered vehicle
and thus, at scale, should be cheaper to
manufacture, could eclipse the internal-
combustion engine. Sunlight could be
stored as electricity during the day, and
wind power at night, and renewable
energy could, at acceptable cost, be made
to behave like a constant, rather than as
an intermittent, energy source. Given that
transportation and electricity together ac-
count for about 40% of global greenhouse-
gas emissions, humanity’s carbon output—
which scientists warn will have to crater


essentially to zero by mid-century to avoid particularly dangerous
climate change—actually might start plummeting.
A grand reordering of economic winners and losers likely would
result, with established players scrambling for new business mod-
els. Automakers would have to retool or die. Oil companies would
have to reinvent themselves at least in significant part as renew-
able-energy providers or shrivel into oblivion. Utilities would have
to pivot to a new and decentralized business in which they operated
huge numbers of solar panels and wind turbines and batteries.
Figuring out how to store electricity economically, in other words,
could short-circuit the global economy and then rewire it.
Can it be done? I burned a lot of fossil fuel this spring trying to
find out. I drove around Northern California and flew around the
world. In Silicon Valley, Boston, China, and Korea, I found startups
clawing their way up and corporations struggling not to fall down. All
were nervous, though some were more forthcoming about that than
others. Energy storage today is the mother of all frothy markets.

T


HE BATTERY IS, IN ITS BASIC architecture, a simple device. It
contains four main parts: a positively charged electrode,
called a cathode; a negatively charged electrode, called
an anode; a substance that connects them, called an
electrolyte, which typically is a liquid; and a membrane, known as
a separator, that prevents certain particles from traveling from one
electrode to the other in a “short circuit,” which could spark a fire. A
too-thin separator was implicated in a rash of fires in 2016 in some
Samsung phones.
When a battery is powering a device, chemical reactions inside
it break atoms into positively charged particles, called ions, and
negatively charged particles, called electrons. The ions and elec-
trons move simultaneously from the anode to the cathode, but they
move in different streams. The ions move through the battery; the
electrons create a circuit through the device, powering it.
In a conventional battery, when all its ions and electrons have
moved from the anode to the cathode, the battery is dead. A re-
chargeable battery can be plugged in to receive new electricity, posi-
tioning ions and electrons in the anode to power the device again.
A major goal in battery research is maximizing “energy density”:
the amount of energy that can be shoved into a battery of a given
volume or weight. That depends largely on the number of ions its
anode can hold; the more ions, the more electrons the battery will
have available to keep the device running. This primacy of ions and
anode frames two crucial realities of today’s battery quest.
One is that virtually all batteries today get their ions from the
same element: lithium. Lithium is a particularly “light” element,
which means its ions are particularly small, which means a par-
ticularly large number of them can be stuffed into an anode. So
most electric devices today, from iPhones to Teslas, are powered by
“lithium-ion” batteries.
The other reality is that a crucial part of today’s battery quest is
the bid to build a better anode: one that can accommodate espe-
cially massive quantities of lithium ions.
Among the many hopefuls trying to perfect a super-anode is

JEFFREY CHAMBERLAIN : CEO, Volta Energy Technologies


WHAT RENEWABLE ENERGY


REPRESENTS” TO UTILITIES


AND OIL COMPANIES “IS


MASSIVE DESTRUCTION.”


FORTUNE 500