Materials research, super batteries, and the technopolitics of electric automobility

Eisler, Matthew (2016) Materials research, super batteries, and the technopolitics of electric automobility. Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, 46 (1). pp. 44-66. ISSN 1939-182X (

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The protracted commercialization of battery electric passenger vehicles is often ascribed to the failure of the automobile industry to embrace the latest power sources. In this article, I argue that the pace of progress in this context was instead dictated largely by the ways researchers constructed metrics of power source per- formance. Such processes can in turn be seen as issuing from the conflicting agendas of academic, industrial, and state research. Knowledge of advanced power sources historically tended to be generated not in the automobile industry but in the research laboratories of allied industries and especially in state-funded academic networks. Notable in this regard was materials science and engineering, which exerted an important epistemic influence on advanced power source and electric vehicle research and development. Materials researchers tended to select com- pounds for reactivity rather than safety and durability, giving rise to the idea of a super battery and leading them and others to treat power sources as essentially materials rather than parts of complex technological systems. This way of thinking prevented technologists from appreciating the physical limits of power sources in real-world applications, setting up crises of expectation at later stages of electric automobile research and development. In the gap between basic research and the exigencies of industrial technoscience, the imagined super-battery electric vehicle came to be mobilized for ends consonant with multiple entrenched interests.


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