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Communications of the ACM

ACM Opinion

Lithium: Why It Makes Such Great Batteries

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Alex Eben Meyer

One theme I ran into over and over while writing about the periodic table was the future of energy and the question of which element or elements will replace carbon as king. Plutonium seemed a sure winner in the 1950s and 1960s; nowadays it conjures up more horror than hope. As the gloomy prospects of climate change became clear a few decades later, hydrogen—either in nuclear fusion or as a liquid fuel—began to excite people as a replacement for oil. Enthusiasm waned somewhat once the practical difficulties of creating and transporting hydrogen became clear.

Scientists have continued to tinker with different elements and have learned new ways to store and deliver energy. Among the most promising candidate elements to emerge is the third element, lithium. Chevrolet, in fact, has bet its future on the lithium batteries in the Chevy Volt, the electric car it will release in November.

Lithium makes a fine battery because it's a scarily reactive metal. Pure lithium ignites on contact if it touches water—a flake of it would sizzle and fry on the water-rich cells of your skin. Even lithium batteries (which do not contain pure lithium) can put you in danger. People's linty pockets have reportedly caught fire when jangling keys or coins short-circuited batteries.

But that vigor also means that lithium, if properly channeled, can deliver loads of energy...

From Slate
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