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'Powerhouse,’ by Steve LeVine

Scientists struggling to devise a better battery aren’t obvious sources of drama. Few pursuits, however, have as much potential to change the world, a point Steve LeVine makes vividly clear in his new book, “The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World.”

LeVine follows teams of researchers racing one another to perfect a battery that will give electric cars enough range to win over a skeptical public. Make electrics truly appealing and cheap, and suddenly climate change seems far less hopeless, OPEC less powerful.

And, of course, those who win the race stand to make themselves, and their country, quite a bit richer.

Despite those very high stakes, LeVine sets himself a difficult task. Most of his subjects are scientists, primarily at Argonne National Laboratory, in Illinois, and a handful of private companies that spend their days tinkering with chemical formulas to improve upon the lithium-ion battery. In many ways, this is profoundly unglamorous work. And few readers not already in the field are likely to care about the chemistry itself.

So LeVine focuses on the race, pitting labs, companies and countries against one another for the lead in an industry that could one day be huge. His subjects swipe ideas from one another, fret over how much of their research to publish for fear of tipping off the competition and cast nervous glances at China, whose government did such an effective job seizing control of solar manufacturing.

LeVine also finds some vivid personalities to carry his story. There are meticulous scientists such as Mike Thackeray, a determined South African who finds his way to Argonne. There are eager Silicon Valley entrepreneurs such as Sujeet Kumar, a founder of Envia Systems in Newark, who wants to take one of the new chemical tweaks out of the lab and into the marketplace.

And balancing between those worlds, there’s Jeff Chamberlain, manager of Argonne’s battery program, who insists the lab get paid for its inventions. Chamberlain also has the tricky task of supervising geniuses, coaxing the best possible work out of a team of “sensitive souls with enormous egos.”

LeVine’s need to turn as many of his researchers as possible into colorful characters sometimes leads him astray. For every one who stands out, there are two who don’t, despite the personal details the author lavishes on each. After a while, it’s hard not to wonder whether we really need to meet so many scientists.

There’s also the issue of timing. LeVine is writing about a race that is still very much under way. If anything, the competition seems to be heating up to create not just a better battery for electric cars, but also batteries capable of storing enough energy for entire buildings or the electric grid itself. Most readers sufficiently interested in picking up “Powerhouse” will probably know going in that this remains a race without a winner. That’s hardly a fatal flaw, but it does change the shape of the story that LeVine can tell, ensuring that it will stay, at least in part, open-ended.

In such a crowded field, LeVine’s focus on Argonne (and to a lesser extent, Envia) can feel confining. It’s thoroughly understandable. Chamberlain granted LeVine full access to Argonne’s battery department for two years — a coup, considering the lab is a secure government facility whose employees are constantly on guard against intellectual-property theft. But other players in the field get too little attention. LeVine spends all of four pages on Tesla Motors, for example, and never even mentions the electric automaker’s planned Gigafactory, which aims to slash battery costs through efficiency and scale rather than chemistry and physics. Whether it succeeds or fails, it’s one of the most important EV battery projects anywhere right now, and it’s absent in the book.

LeVine’s tight focus, however, has its benefits. “Powerhouse” shows readers how a scientific insight can work its way slowly into the marketplace, to the point where it becomes ubiquitous. The book is also packed with the kind of strange, unexpected history that makes good science writing so memorable. (Who released the world’s first rechargeable lithium battery in 1977? Exxon. Yes, that Exxon.)

“Powerhouse” also illustrates — in detail — why the race to build a better battery has proved so difficult. One of the most promising technologies, tracked by LeVine from inception, turns out to have a significant problem that researchers discover late in the game, when it’s well down the road to commercialization. In the era of smart phones and self-parking cars, we tend to believe that all technological hurdles will eventually be overcome, given time and money. It’s worth remembering, as LeVine reminds us here, that the process of doing so is rarely simple or easy. Often, there are many tiny steps forward, and plenty sideways, before the big leap.

David R. Baker is the energy reporter at The San Francisco Chronicle. E-mail: books@sfchronicle.com


Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World

By Steve LeVine

(Viking; 308 pages; $28.95)

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