On a July visit to the Smith Electric Vehicles plant in Kansas City, Missouri, U.S. President Barack Obama vowed that within five years, the United States would be making 40 percent of the world's advanced batteries. (It made just 2 percent in 2009.) "That's how we ensure that America doesn't just limp along," he declared, "but instead that we're prospering -- that this nation leads the industries of the future." Obama's point man for this ambitious project defines his goals in equally sweeping terms. "The ability of a country to manufacture batteries and vehicles will help to create wealth, will help to provide resilience against oil-supply disruptions, and help to create jobs," David Sandalow, U.S. assistant energy secretary for policy and international affairs, told me. "And those, in turn, will create national power."
But while U.S. officials have been sweeping in their rhetoric, China has been breathtaking in the scale and specificity with which it is ordering up an electric-car industry. Beijing in recent years has issued government directives that, if realized, will result in the production of some 30 electric-vehicle models by 2012; expanding lithium-ion battery manufacturing into a $25 billion-a-year industry by that same year; and the construction of about 100 charging stations this year alone across the country.
It's not just the United States and China. Google the phrase "electric car" and the name of any reasonably sized country, and you will turn up yet another aspirant. More than a dozen would-be contenders from South America to Scandinavia are talking about the technology in positively existential terms, even those with little plausible hope of coming up winners. German Chancellor Angela Merkel hopes that "in the 21st century we are again the nation that is able to build the most intelligent and environmentally friendly cars." French Ecology Minister Jean-Louis Borloo has announced a government-industry plan to win "the battle of the electric car." Those who develop and manufacture the next-generation technology for electric cars, these leaders believe, will be the haves. And those who don't will be at the mercy of those who do.
ONE, TWO, THREE DOORS, AND JEFFREY CHAMBERLAIN is into the "dry room," a state-of-the-art, moisture-proof chamber customized for fiddling with the exacting technology of advanced lithium-ion batteries. Chamberlain, the 44-year-old manager of a scientific team at the U.S. Energy Department's Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago, walks over to a machine loaded with giant rolls of white plastic film. Peering through plastic protective glasses, he explains how the film is coated: slowly, with a liquid mixture of aluminum and carbon. The coating process is crucial to the lithium-ion battery. It's also very, very old. "It's a 19th-century technology," Chamberlain says; in labs in other countries, he adds in a whisper, he has seen scientists actually dip a finger into the slurry to judge its quality.
The battery, like the light bulb, is at its heart an archaic device, an artifact of the early Industrial Revolution tucked inside the gadgets of the 21st century. In 1749, half a century before Alessandro Volta invented the first battery, Benjamin Franklin coined the word to describe a rudimentary electric contraption he built out of glass panes, lead plates, and wires. The modern Energizer is a remarkably close descendant of the first lead-acid battery -- two sheets of the pliable metal divided by a piece of linen and suspended in a glass jar of a sulfuric acid solution -- invented by French physicist Gaston Planté in 1859. The world's two largest car-battery manufacturers, Johnson Controls and Exide Technologies, both U.S.-based enterprises, make most of their money selling what are essentially variations on Planté's 151-year-old workhorse.
The greatest advance in battery design since Planté originated in the United States in 1977. The world's faith in petroleum had been shaken by the oil shocks earlier in the decade, and even Exxon, the world's most profitable oil company, was in the market for alternatives. Exxon developed and commercialized the lithium-ion battery, which generated power by discharging ions from one side of the device and absorbing them on the other -- an innovation that allowed the battery to store far more energy than earlier technologies. But as memories of the energy crisis faded, and with them the imperative to escape from dependence on oil, Exxon abruptly abandoned the lithium-ion business. Japan's Sony picked it up, combining advances by American and Japanese researchers and releasing a much-improved version of Exxon's lithium-ion invention in 1991; it packed four times the energy of its lead-acid predecessor.