The Scientific Don Quixote And The Quest For The Electric Car

The Scientific Don Quixote And The Quest For The Electric Car

When Arie Haagen-Smit, a world-renowned plant expert and the man who discovered the active ingredient in marijuana, figured out that automobiles were responsible for southern California’s smog problem, he set off the quest for an electric car. The Quest is an examination of the history and future of where our energy comes from.

Arie Haagen-Smit was an avid gardener with an abiding fascination with plants. In his professional work at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, next to Los Angeles, Haagen-Smit focused on the physiology of plants, particularly the chemistry of their odours and flavours. The Dutch-born professor achieved worldwide recognition for his work on plant hormones and the flavour components of wine, onions, and garlic. He also identified the active agent in marijuana.

In 1948 Haagen-Smit was investigating something that deeply intrigued him: the chemical basis of the flavour of pineapples. One afternoon he stepped out of his lab for a break and a breath of fresh air. But there wasn’t any fresh air. Instead he found himself immersed in what he later called “that stinking cloud that rolled across the landscape every afternoon”. His own lungs were under attack. The assailant was the smog that often settled over Southern California and had become a pervasive part of life in Los Angeles.

At the time a fierce argument was raging over the source of the smog. Was it caused by industrial pollution, or by the million and a half backyard incinerators that residents used to dispose of their trash? Or could it be something else, the rapidly swelling population of automobiles? Right there, on the spot, Haagen-Smit decided that, using his skills at microchemistry, “it would not be difficult to find out what smog really was”. He put aside his beloved pineapples and turned to creating smog in a test tube.

Haagen-Smit was right: it was not difficult. “We hit the jackpot with the first nickel,” he later said.

Haagen-Smit established that the real culprit was what came out of the automobile tailpipes — emissions from incompletely burned gasoline — along with gases released from storage tanks and auto gas tanks. For this discovery, along with his subsequent focus on air pollution, Haagen-Smit became known as “the Father of Smog”. He was not thrilled with the title; if he was the father, he would ask, who was the mother?

Haagen-Smit may have identified the cause of smog, but solving it was a confused, complex, and often contentious process that went on for many years. When Haagen-Smit first reported his findings, critics dismissed him as a “scientific Don Quixote”. Some were stunned by Haagen-Smit’s discovery that the automobile that made possible the Southern California way of life was also the scourge of that lifestyle. One citizen wrote to the Los Angeles Times in shock: “We have created one of the finest networks of freeways in the country, and suddenly wake up to discover that we have also created a monster.”

Haagen-Smit’s discovery in 1948 would eventually lead to what some believe could be the most important development in transportation since Henry Ford’s Model T — the massive effort in the twenty-first century to bring back something that had disappeared from the roads at the beginning of the 20thcentury: An automobile with no tailpipe at all. The electric car.


Oil had held its seemingly impregnable position as king of the realm of transportation for almost a century.

By the beginning of the 21st century, however, people were beginning to question how long oil would — or should — hold on to its crown. Yet as late as 2007 in the debate over the future of automotive transportation, the electric car was only a peripheral topic. Biofuels were the focus.

Within a few years, however, the electric car would move onto centre stage. It could, said its proponents, break the grip of oil on transportation, allowing motorists to unplug from turbulence in the oil-exporting world and high prices at the pump. It could help reduce pollution and off set the carbon emissions that precipitate to climate change. And it could provide a powerful answer to the great puzzle of how the world can accommodate the move from one billion cars to two billion. The electric car is powered by electricity that can be generated from any number of different sources, none of which need be oil. Perhaps more than any other technology, the electric car represents a stark alternative road to the future for the global energy system.

The electric vision rapidly became so compelling that expectations for electric cars far exceed the actual impact such cars might have on the world’s auto fleet in terms of numbers, at least in the next decade or two. Yet their presence in the fleet, even if small, will change attitudes about both oil and autos far ahead of the numerical impact. In decades further out, the effect could be much larger. There are, however, two big questions: Can they deliver the performance that is promised at a cost that is acceptable? And will consumers choose to make them a mainstream purchase as opposed to a niche product?

In the meantime, very big bets are now being placed on the renewed race — between the battery and the internal combustion engine, between electricity and oil — that was supposedly decided a century ago. The outcome will have enormous significance in terms of both economics and geopolitics.

The conviction is also growing that electric vehicles could constitute a great “new industry”, the epitome of cleantech, and the means to leapfrog to leadership in the global auto industry. This is a big opportunity for companies, entrepreneurs and investors. But it is seen as much more than an opportunity in the marketplace. A French government minister has declared that “the battle of the electric car” has begun. “Electric vehicles are the future and the driver of the Industrial Revolution,” said one of Europe’s economic leaders. By 2010 the Obama administration had provided $US5 billion in grants and loan guarantees to battery makers, entrepreneurs, major auto companies, and equipment suppliers to jump-start the electric car and build out the infrastructure systems that would support it. “Here in the United States,” Obama announced, “we’ve created an entire new industry.”

This, indeed, is a game of nations. For countries like China and Korea, it is the opportunity to take a dominant position in a critical growth sector. Conversely, success in electric transportation may be required if the traditional leading countries in automobiles — the United States, Japan and Germany — are to maintain their positions. If batteries are to be the “new oil”, then the winners in battery know- how and production can capture a decisive new role in the world economy- and the rewards that will go with that.

Excerpted from THE QUEST: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World by Daniel Yergin. Reprinted by arrangement of Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) 2011 by Daniel Yergin.


Daniel Yergin is a Pulitzer Prize winner and recipient of the United States Energy Award for “lifelong achievements in energy and the promotion of international understanding.”

Image: Shutterstock/Natalia Sinjushina & Evgeniy Meyke