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The US is losing the high-stakes global battery war

Though we rarely give them much thought, batteries — specifically lithium-ion batteries — enable modern life. They run our smartphones, yes, but they also power our Bluetooth speakers, toothbrushes, satellites, and pacemakers. In Australia, a partnership with Tesla will equip 50,000 homes with solar panels and battery packs, transforming them into a single “virtual power plant” capable of storing 250MW. Increasingly, batteries move us: from electric cars to pedal-assist bikes, scooters, trains, planes, and even boats. By 2025, it’s estimated that lithium-ion batteries will become a $94 billion global market.

Yet, genuine breakthroughs in battery technology are few and far between. The lithium-ion batteries we use today are iterations of a technology developed almost 40 years ago and commercialized by Sony back in 1991. Year over year, we squeeze more juice out of the pack, but a true successor remains just out of reach.

It’s not for lack of trying, either. Over the last three decades, engineers and researchers in South Korea, China, Japan, the United States, and Europe have scrambled to develop safe, light, and powerful batteries that will let you charge your phone as often as you do your laundry. The promise of a so-called “super battery” is enticing: electric cars that travel many hundreds of miles on a single charge and massive battery banks that will let us effectively gather and store enough restorable energy to make fossil fuels obsolete.

Journalist and Axios Future Editor Steve LeVine set out to document what he termed “the Great Battery War” in his 2015 book The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World. His takeaway was sobering: the stakes of the battery war are sky-high, and the United States is being lapped by its competitors. The Verge sat down with LeVine to discuss how the United States lost its lead, how Elon Musk forced the world’s biggest car companies to go electric, and why the super battery is still nowhere in sight.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You teach about energy security at Georgetown University. What made you turn your attention to the so-called battery race?

The battery race was a global decision made by big players in developed countries. Batteries and electric cars were a new geopolitical and economic playground. All these countries want to have some part in the race. And in two or three cases, they want to win. My reporting space at that time was the geopolitics of energy: how energy — oil, gas — impact geopolitics and the power and wealth among countries. Now, I could see a whole different space opening up: batteries and geopolitics.

I Googled around to see who was in the space. I plugged in “batteries” and worked my way down: Brazil, Australia, South Africa. I counted 20 countries, and all of them had ambitions to capture at least a piece of the battery space — or in the case of China and the United States, to own the space.

What was driving that sort of global investment?

It was a convergence of things. The big one was the financial crash. The global economy and many local economies had crumbled, and that happened after the real estate crash and the dot-com crash. Whole countries had their whole spirit beaten out of them. How are we going to claw our way back?

Being the first country to unlock the super battery could have a revolutionary impact on that economy.

Huge difference: it’ll change economies. Economies that have thrived off of the petroleum age won’t be thriving anymore. Those that are involved in the supply chain of batteries and the technologies they enable, that’s where the wealth will flow. The distribution of wealth and power could change.

You framed your book as an arms race between the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Europeans, and Americans. Three years after publishing your book, who’s winning that race?

The number one leaders are the South Koreans. I think people don’t know that. Just take Samsung and LG. They bettered the Japanese in terms of knowing how to manufacture batteries.

The super battery had not been invented. What’s happened is that, over the last decade, the cost and the energy efficiency in batteries have improved through iteration in the manufacturing process. The South Koreans have, every year, pulled more energy out of the batteries and made them cheaper. This has led to what we’re looking at now: we’re on the cusp of electric cars being commercially affordable and attractive. Now, whether people buy them in mass quantities, we don’t know that yet. But the South Koreans have pulled this off, and they’ve done this because they’re the best in the world at manufacturing batteries at scale.

The Chinese are learning from them. South Koreans are, just like us, building factories in China. And the Japanese are very good. Panasonic — Tesla’s battery maker — is a Japanese company. They’re absolutely superb.

The US is in the game — not because it’s manufacturing the batteries, but because it’s the inventor of most of the technology that’s out there. The battery that’s in everyone’s smartphone was invented by John Goodenough, an American, 95 years old, who still works at the University of Texas at Austin. And then the battery that’s in most electric cars was invented by Mike Thackeray at Argonne National Laboratory. So we were ahead on the invention, but we’re not making them at that scale. Elon Musk, with his Gigafactory, looks like he is changing that.

If the United States led the way in terms of developing the technology, how’d we fall so far behind?

Lack of vision. So we did not then have the vision to identify this as an industry of the future and set out to capture it the way the Japanese did. This is a completely different topic, but we’re now making the same mistake with AI.

This is where Musk’s utility is. Musk has made a strategic bet: “I’m going to own electric cars.” If you’re the United States, thank goodness he did that.

Musk faces a substantial amount of criticism for his big promises, his failures, and his public persona. But you’re saying Musk was instrumental in also kickstarting American investment into battery technology?

He’s the essential man. Even as technologically innovative as the Germans are and as quick to act as the Japanese are, they would not have jumped into large-scale commercial battery development if two things had not happened: Musk dove in and showed that his Roadster really got people’s attention — both for the quality and for its popularity.

Then there’s the iPhone. The iPhone surprised everyone. No one would’ve said in 2006 that people would pay $750 for a phone. And, of course, the rest is history. What were these other car companies thinking of when they looked at Elon Musk and then jumped into the into the technological race? They were afraid that Musk was going to create an iPhone moment, and they were going to end up like Kodak. In other words, you know, being turned into relics of it in the dustbin of corporate history. That is not being melodramatic. That’s the hard and fast truth.

Musk triggered paranoia in major carmakers’ corporate boards. That’s why all of them have jumped in with both feet. Detroit, the Germans, and less so the Japanese; the Japanese have jumped in, but they’re conflicted about which technology they’re going for. Absent the Roadster and then the model S, the industry wouldn’t be in the place it is now. Despite all of Musk’s rough edges that we’ve seen over the last years — his exaggerations, his failures, and now being the subject of an FCC investigation because of his tweet — he is still that essential man.

Every few months, it seems as if engineers and scientists are announcing that there’s been a breakthrough either in the development of a solid state battery, one that can hold a remarkable amount of charge, or one that’s cobalt-free. What are the chances we actually see a super battery happening in the near future?

What does “near future” mean?

Within the next five years.

What do you mean by “happening”?

Entering the market.

Zero chance. Just practically speaking, the breakthroughs haven’t happened. Solid state, silicon anode, or metallic lithium anode batteries — these are possibilities. But in those three areas, we don’t have any of the breakthroughs. Let’s say that the breakthrough happened today, then you still have to scale it out, and get the manufacturing process down, and get factories, and get those scaled up. That arc is longer than five years. Even if the super battery were made today, you would not have the actual commercial battery on the market in five years.

And yet we still read claims from scientists who have made breakthroughs. In fact, John Goodenough, the inventor of the lithium-ion battery, recently announced that he’d developed a revolutionary new battery.

He has something interesting. There are interesting claimed advances that are still at the bench level. It has all of those parameters: costs, distance, safety, and speed of charge. And so he figured it out on the safety front.

At Quartz, there was a story about a claimed breakthrough in a metallic lithium anode. This is the Holy Grail. I’m not getting any confirmation that that’s a breakthrough. I’m troubled by the fact that there’s no confirmation, that only one outside researcher has been allowed to look at it, and that person would not go on the record validating it.

What I’m saying is that when you get the really serious battery guys over a beer and ask them, off the record, “Tell me the truth. Has anyone you know in any of the formulation had a breakthrough?” The answer is “No.” No one even has one on the horizon.

Everyone is working very hard. I’m a believer. There are so many people in so many countries, and the stakes are so high to resolve this problem that someone will break through. And I also think it’s not going to be 10 years. It’ll happen, and then it will take some time for that to get into the commercial market.

You mean less than that or more?

I think less than that.

And the development of that battery could fundamentally change our lives.

If you have solid state figured and it’s safe and you get energetic oomph from the new anode, yes it will be transformative. It will be economically, environmentally, and could be geopolitically transformative.

The quest to make a super battery is not going to go away. People should watch this space. When it happens, it will have a fundamental change in everybody’s lives.