The Great Battery Race: A 19th-Century Technology Could Determine Which Nation Triumphs in the 21st. Steve Levine Reports from the Global Competition to Replace the Combustion Engine

By Levine, Steve | Foreign Policy, November 2010 | Go to article overview

The Great Battery Race: A 19th-Century Technology Could Determine Which Nation Triumphs in the 21st. Steve Levine Reports from the Global Competition to Replace the Combustion Engine


Levine, Steve, Foreign Policy


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

IN 2007, THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT approached Wan Gang, a 54-year-old engineer-turned-university-president from Shanghai, with a remarkable offer. Chinese President Hu Jintao had taken up the political mantra of "scientific development," and the authorities wanted someone of Wan's caliber to serve as the country's minister of science and technology--so badly, in fact, that they were willing to violate longstanding convention and elevate Wan even though he wasn't a Communist Party member. It was the first time in more than five decades that such an exception had been made for a government minister.

What made Wan of such interest to Hu was his expertise in a once-obscure corner of automotive engineering: After 10 years working for the Audi car company in Germany, he was a world authority on electric-vehicle technology. Just as important, Wan possessed the technical know-how necessary to supervise groundbreaking research in advanced batteries, the make-or-break component that could separate an electric vehicle that consumers would actually want to buy from an expensive exercise in engineering vanity. Shortly after returning to China, he was named the chief scientist on the country's blue-ribbon research panel for electric cars.

The Chinese government saw in the technology that Wan had mastered a potential future pillar of its economy. Starting virtually from scratch, Beijing announced last year it would become the world's largest producer of the vehicles within the next few years. "China is committed to developing clean and electric vehicles," Wan told me when I met him in Chicago this summer. "Batteries and clean vehicles are a national strategic priority."

Indeed, the battery, among the most humble and unsexy of inventions, might just be the most important technological battleground of the next two decades. The discovery of the next key breakthroughs in the field could mean not just a fortune for a handful of companies, but the remaking of whole economies--and the rebalancing of geopolitical power that typically accompanies such shifts. A Chinese triumph could speed the country's global advance; an American one could give U.S. dominance a new lease on life.

Two developments have brought us to this pass. Developed countries and rising powers alike are looking to curb their oil-guzzling habits, for any number of reasons: climate change, unsavory petrostate politics, the looming fear there simply isn't enough petroleum on the planet to satisfy everyone. The result is a new global interest in alternatives to petroleum and the internal combustion engine--most prominently advanced battery technology, the necessary precondition for the development of an affordable, powerful electric car.

But the world doesn't just need a better car--it also needs a better means of building and sustaining economies. Over the last 20 years, Asia's growth has been mostly driven by manufacturing exports, while the United States' was fueled first by Silicon Valley's tech boom and later by elaborate (and ultimately ruinous) financial instruments. But those platforms have reached or are nearing their limits, and in the scramble to avoid another recession, the world's great economies are looking for the next big thing, an engine of economic growth for the future.

These two aspirations--for a less oil-dependent world and for a more prosperous one--are rapidly converging in a global race for a better battery. By 2030, experts say, advanced batteries will swell into a $100 billion-a-year business. They will also enable an electric-car industry on the order of half a trillion dollars, on a par with the global pharmaceutical industry and capable of spawning companies on the scale of ExxonMobil, General Electric, and Toyota. "It is a matter of national wealth and national economic advantage in a way that few new things in society can be," Peter Harrop, who heads the Britain-based technology consulting firm IDTechEx, told me.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Great Battery Race: A 19th-Century Technology Could Determine Which Nation Triumphs in the 21st. Steve Levine Reports from the Global Competition to Replace the Combustion Engine
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.