In the 10 years since General Motors discontinued its unprofitable electric vehicle, EV1—the victim in the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?—a new generation of plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles (AEVs) has emerged. Most of the new EVs are powered by lithium-ion batteries, which have double the energy density (typically expressed as kilowatt hours per unit mass) of the EV1’s nickel metal hydride (NiMH) battery (see the article by Héctor D. Abruña, Yasuyuki Kiya, and Jay C. Henderson in Physics Today, December 2008, page 43).

Still, modern EVs face big hurdles: At current production levels, Li-ion transportation batteries are expensive, and their energy densities are insufficient for long-distance trips. As a result, US sales of modern EVs—fewer than 100 000 since 2010—have failed to keep the pace needed to meet President Obama’s 2008 goal to put one million electric cars on the road by 2015.

The...

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