Diehl on Murray, 'Long Hard Road: The Lithium-Ion Battery and the Electric Car'

Charles J. Murray. Long Hard Road: The Lithium-Ion Battery and the Electric Car. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2022. Illustrations. 328 pp. $26.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-61249-762-4

Reviewed by Amelia Diehl (University of Utah)
Published on H-Environment (March, 2023)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58378

President Joe Biden very badly wants the United States to drive electric vehicles (EVs): his administration’s (nonbinding) goal is that 50 percent of car sales are EVs by 2050, a steep climb from the current single-digit share. Interest—and funding—for EVs has ebbed and flowed over more than a century, almost like a battery that cannot keep its charge. The lithium-ion battery, in fact, is still in need of fine-tuning for the EV: the Biden administration has announced 135 billion dollars of investments toward developing EVs and relevant infrastructure, such as an electrified grid and charging stations.

Charles J. Murray’s Long Hard Road, while it leaves out discussion of the Biden administration’s significant funding, paves a timely history of the scientific innovations powering EV battery technology, on-ramping us to the present energy transition. At a time when EVs are again being trotted into the limelight, Long Hard Road will fascinate many readers by showing just how old the idea of an EV is. Divided into two parts, it provides an overview of the EV’s scientific workings, helpful for any scholar studying the energy transition.

Part 1, “The Making of a Battery,” details the early developments of battery technology, when scientists from the United States, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Japan, and elsewhere tweaked the right combination of materials for cathodes, anodes, and electrolytes. For instance, scientists were tasked with avoiding the flammability of metallic lithium, while trying to increase energy storage and maximize rechargeability. Often, these scientists made contributions to parts of a battery without recognizing the wider potential, and not all discoveries were patented. Part 2, “The Heart of the Electric Car,” outlines how automobile and technology companies navigate a patchwork of patents and licenses to engineer these scientific breakthroughs for the emerging EV industry.

Long Hard Road’s underlying argument is that innovation is never linear; technology evolves at different rates. Part of this is specific to the complexity of battery technology, which does not fall under Moore’s law and dodges the assumption of infinite technological progress. In a world full of handheld electronics, many of which use different sizes of lithium-ion batteries, this assumption is so widespread that energy historian Vaclav Smil calls this optimism “Moore’s curse” (p. 251). Another of Murray’s main points is that while media sources often credit discoveries to a single person, it is almost always only possible with a team. Three scientists—John Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham, and Akira Yoshino—were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019 for their contributions to the lithium-ion battery, though the book succeeds at showing the globally distributed and nonlinear path of many contributors.

However, the book hesitates to apply these same considerate perspectives to offer an in-depth narrative of scientific innovation that takes into account such factors as geopolitics, political economy, and shifting cultural values. With a bachelor of science in engineering, Chicago-based Murray has written about science and technology for several decades. Given his background, it is fair to say that his priority is communicating the science, something he achieves by sprinkling in bullet points throughout, rather than making a point to pause and explain basic chemistry to his readers. But where Murray does attempt to acknowledge such factors as geopolitics or shifting ideology, the book reads like woefully unfinished sentences.

For instance, Murray briefly mentions NASA scientist James Hansen’s 1988 testimony to Congress linking fossil fuels to climate change and describes how it played a part in the shifting public opinion that pressured auto companies to again consider EVs. But Murray’s main point is that climate science was seen as a public relations problem for auto companies and that many engineers at the time were “skeptical” about climate science. For a book about scientific innovation, it seems an odd choice that he never follows up to clarify that climate science is overwhelmingly respected internationally or to mention a word about how the fossil fuel industry weaponized public relations to maintain profits and delay climate action. In another example, the cost of materials is mentioned as a major factor determining which early EV prototypes got off the ground, but Murray omits any mention of “externalized costs,” such as the social or environmental costs related to mining. The cobalt in Goodenough’s research, for instance, was linked to the human rights abuses in Mobutu Sese Seko’s Democratic Republic of the Congo (then called the Republic of Zaire).

EVs were always a way for the oil-dependent auto industry to stay relevant—and they still are, as the market for environmental currency continues to evolve. Murray hints at this fact throughout, pointing to, for example, the 1963 Clean Air Act, 1973 oil embargo, peak oil and consciousness during the era of An Inconvenient Truth (2006), and the California Air Resources Board as factors striking existential fear in the hearts of auto companies.

In Murray’s history, the scientists are the heroes, with the auto industry following close behind; Murray’s sources mostly entail the scientists themselves, auto and fossil fuel executives, and the occasional media excerpt. (One of the strengths of the book, however, is that to avoid the dense scientific material taking over, Murray includes quotations from interviews he conducted and slows down the narrative to include the thoughts and feelings of his subjects.) RAV4 EV owner Tom Hanks told David Letterman, “I’m saving America by driving an Electric car,” a sentiment echoed in the eventual founding of Tesla, which, as Murray says in a rare moment of critique, allows rich people to project their values (p. 197). To explain the recent growth in EVs and emissions targets, Murray simply says that the auto companies “were recognizing the international urgency,” but it is unclear which urgency: immanent climate tipping points, research funding made newly available, or the eagerness to capitalize on a new market (p. 258)?

Lithium is just one of thirty-five critical minerals designated by the 2020 Energy Act to meet Biden’s emissions goals and secure energy independence (a goal that includes many more technologies than EVs). The World Bank estimates that meeting the world’s most ambitious climate goals would require 3.5 billion tons of metal; an International Energy Agency report translates these climate pledges to an additional fifty lithium, sixty nickel, and seventeen cobalt mines needed before 2030. Dozens of mines are being surveyed across the US for these minerals, and they are facing backlash, based on concerns for Indigenous rights and environmental protection.

Murray does not explicitly paint EVs as the perfect solution, but by only quoting scientists and auto and fossil fuel companies, he fails to equip the reader in questioning persistent and compromising factors, such as greenwashing. Such scholars as Cara New Daggett (The Birth of Energy: Fossil Fuels, Thermodynamics, and the Politics of Work [2019]), Thea Riofrancos (Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador [2020]), Dominic Boyer (Energopolitics: Wind and Power in the Anthropocene [2019]), and Cymene Howe (Ecologics: Wind and Power in the Anthropocene [2019]), among many others, provide a more nuanced critique of energy systems, technology, and power.

These questions are important for any scholar to at least acknowledge, because the history of scientific innovation is never a simple story of funding and knowledge. Funding depends on what is valued politically and culturally, and the values circulating around EVs are inseparable from the values determining what counts as “green technology” and, even broader, what counts as a true solution to climate change. The roads may be paved for EVs, literally and metaphorically, but these questions point to the possibility and necessity of different paths.

Citation: Amelia Diehl. Review of Murray, Charles J., Long Hard Road: The Lithium-Ion Battery and the Electric Car. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58378

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.