Credit: New Scientist
Picture the scene: in downtown New York City, all-electric cars glide through streets in a zero-emission transport revolution. Polluting, inefficient gasoline and diesel vehicles are nowhere to be seen - or heard. The only things getting in the way of these smooth, noiseless vehicles are the horse-drawn trams.
That's right, we're talking about the past. The electric car had its heyday over a century ago. Its brief reign came to an end in 1912, when gasoline-powered Cadillacs began to come fitted with starter motors. That did away with the inconvenient crank handle needed to get their engines going, and they could run for 100 miles or more on a tank on fuel. The all-electric car's battery would run out before you reached the city limits. It was no contest.
Now, in the first decade of the 21st century, history is about to go into reverse. The climate crisis is prompting thoughts of an all-electric economy, of which electric cars will be a vital part. The idea has been taking shape in engineering labs and on the roads for a while, and now fresh impetus is finally coming from on high. "Our dependency on oil is dangerous and short-sighted," US energy secretary Stephen Chu wrote in Newsweek in April. "We must... move toward running new vehicles on electricity and to generating that electricity from clean, renewable sources like solar and wind power."
There's just one rather large obstacle remaining - and it's the same one that stalled the electric car 100 years ago. "In the end, it all comes down to the lowly battery," says Donald Sadoway, who studies materials chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Though batteries have been around for more than 200 years (see time line), precious little research effort has gone into improving them. That's changing fast.
Dr. Gopal Rao
Web Science Editor
Editor, Meeting Scene
Materials Research Society (MRS)