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. "But it is a high-stakes game. It is going to be beneficial [only] to certain companies in certain countries."
Two of the likeliest beneficiaries are Japan and South Korea, the top producers of today's cutting-edge batteries and the favorites to develop tomorrow's. But the more interesting -- and potentially world-changing -- rivalry is between the United States and China, both of which are scrambling to get into the game. Each country has a great deal to win by establishing itself as an early leader in advanced batteries, in competition or in partnership with East Asia's technological heavyweights. The contest has taken on ultraserious geopolitical heft for the United States, at its lowest economic ebb in recent memory, and for China, eager to cement its position as a globally influential superpower. Both countries' governments have adopted an unapologetically hands-on approach, attempting to drive innovation from the top down and viewing the project through the lens of national strength. The analogies tend more toward the Manhattan Project than Microsoft.