We know that around 1975 John B. Goodenough devised a workable rechargeable battery of high energy density based upon lithium ions. By 1992, the concept had been commercialized by Sony, and since then, with increasing intensity, hundreds of academic and commercial laboratories have striven night and day to be the first to create for electric vehicles a better battery that has it all.

Having it all means being affordable, free of high-priced materials, safe in operation, fast-charging, capable of producing large current, long-lasting, and able to store enough energy in a lightweight package to compete heads-up with the range and performance of vehicles powered by internal-combustion engines.

Many different electrode chemistries exist for the basic lithium-ion process, but no single one of them has yet achieved a “round” performance offering all of the listed desirable attributes.

One way to look at the future is to say, “Well, all these hundreds of labs have been hard at it for many years, so the big breakthrough will come any minute. We deserve it. All it takes is for some brilliant chemist to add a pinch of this or that and we’re home.”

On the other hand, I visited Avco-Everett’s carbon-fiber facility in 1976 and was handed a sample of “prepreg ply,” a layer of unidirectional carbon fibers already impregnated with the correct volume of epoxy to make multi-layer structures of enormous strength and stiffness. Yet Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, its structure largely of carbon fiber, made its first commercial flight in October 2011—35 years later.

Since the 1990s, there has been discussion of the weight that could be saved on motorcycles by carbon composite structure, but a quarter-century later, the occasional exotic MotoGP carbon swingarm is all that has arrived. When aluminum swingarms appeared on factory motocrossers around 1975, it was 12 years before all-aluminum mainstream production motorcycle chassis rolled into showrooms.

Our expectations of what technology can give us result from fast changes in areas such as computing. We are impressed by social change caused by the coming of phones that are really pocket-sized computer terminals connected to “an internet of everything.” This tells us that technology can give us whatever we want and soon.

LiveWire electric motorcycle
Harley-Davidson says its $29,799 LiveWire electric motorcycle will arrive in dealerships this August. As with so many electric vehicles, range and charging speeds remain significant hurdles to mainstream adaption.Courtesy of Harley-Davidson

I was therefore fascinated to tear through the late John D. Clark's little book Ignition!, which describes the intensity, creativity, and results of rocket-fuels research from the end of World War II to the mid-1960s. Military planners knew that any future world war would be decided by nuclear ICBMs, with results final in 20 minutes. Driven by that sharp spur, world governments poured treasure and resources into the development of rocket fuels that might give them Cold War leverage.

Chemists can compute the ideal energy yields of even quite complex fuel and oxidizer molecules. But it’s quite another thing to realize ideals in practice. Some fuels, such as powdered aluminum, burn too slowly to react completely before they leave the nozzle. Others failed to meet the services’ standards for storability or low freezing temperatures. Some compounds slowly deteriorated over time, generating gas that could burst storage containers. Little by little, useful combinations were discovered, but the exotic promise of super fuels kept research going, trying to create ultra-high-energy combinations based on boron, fluorine (it eats through glass), and even remarkably poisonous mercury. Standards were created to measure sensitivity; some fuels, especially monopropellants, detonated if poured, or if they touched dust, or from micro-cavitation. Countless thousands of compounds were proposed, produced in labs, tested, and, if possible, fired in research rocket engines. Micro-contamination of containers by trace elements led to terrible surprises. Researchers were injured or killed.

Here we are in 2019 with heavy rocket boosters still burning RP-1—a kind of standardized kerosene—and liquid oxygen, as in the Apollo program.

At the same time, the US Air Force worked to develop range-extending boron-based fuels for gas turbines. One class of fuels showed promise, until its combustion product turned out to be a viscous material like melted glass, which plugged up the engines in which it was burned. There were explosions with no discoverable cause. Eventually the materials under study proved just too dangerous, and the program was ended.

Here we are in 2019 with heavy rocket boosters still burning RP-1—a kind of standardized kerosene—and liquid oxygen, as in the Apollo program. Higher-performing engines burn liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, and the storable propellants are either conventional solids or based on good old nitrogen tetroxide and acids. In the mid-1960s, computer programs were run on mainframes to exhaustively grind through all possible chemistries. The result? The same compounds that had been discovered by conventional means, so many of which were too sensitive to be used.

There are other ongoing programs that have yet to succeed. One is thermonuclear fusion, a potentially unlimited power source. For much of my lifetime, I have read that, “The problem of controlled fusion will be solved within the next 50 years.” Another is the “room-temperature” superconductor, which would enable super-efficient electrical devices and lossless transmission of power. In each case, success would be of great benefit to humankind. We want success very much. We feel we deserve it.

This is not to say that a super battery with “round” qualities won’t be announced tomorrow. I have presented the above examples because they show it’s possible for some problems to resist solution for decades.