Today, Japanese companies like Panasonic, Sony, and Toyota dominate a $9 billion-a-year lithium-ion battery industry. The future of the business is bright enough that even Exxon is trying to get back into it, belatedly reinvesting in lithium-ion R&D. The world is fast moving from nickel-metal-hydride batteries -- an intermediary technology, also developed in the United States and commercialized in Japan, that is used in Toyota Priuses, among other things -- to lithium-ion ones, which store twice the power in the same space. Lithium-ion batteries power most of our laptops and cell phones. For the next decade at least, they will be the favored technology as well for hybrid-electric and electric cars, which for the first time are being seriously contemplated as a widely used replacement for the conventional internal combustion engine.
But as they have gone from curiosity to great green hope, electric cars have run smack against the limits of today's batteries, limits that are likely to keep such vehicles too expensive and underpowered to go mainstream if no one can figure out how to get past them. As it stands, lithium-ion batteries cost $1,000 per kilowatt-hour of energy output. Engineers say it's theoretically possible to bring that figure down to $300, but the laws of physics prevent going beyond that. Even if they hit that target, however, battery-powered cars would still have costs too high, ranges too limited, and recharge times too long to truly compete with conventional vehicles. (Lithium-ion batteries also have a rather unsettling tendency, on rare occasions, to burst into flames. This is unpleasant enough when it happens in a cell phone or laptop, but an entirely different matter in a car.) The Tesla Roadster, a lithium-ion-driven electric car that debuted in 2006, has the range and speed -- up to 130 miles per hour -- to compete with sports cars. But it takes more than 6,000 individual batteries to pull it off, and the car currently costs north of $100,000. Both the American and Chinese governments are offering generous rebates to make their domestically manufactured electric cars more affordable, but even with the government discount, General Motors' soon-to-be-released Chevy Volt will still cost a steep $33,500.
That's why the future of the electric-car industry belongs not to the scientists and engineers who perfect the batteries we have now, but the ones who figure out what comes next, in the 2020s, the 2030s, and beyond. The holy grail is a battery powerful and safe enough to challenge the energy density of gasoline and the freedom of the internal combustion engine -- if such a battery could be made, consumers would presumably flock to cleaner, quieter electric cars. Which is why scientists at Argonne and around the world are working feverishly to develop what comes next.
Consider the potential: Just the currently expected advances in lithium-ion technology will allow hybrid-electric and electric cars to take over up to 15 percent of the world's new-car sales by 2020, estimates research firm IHS Global Insight; by 2030, the figure could rise to about 50 percent, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration projections. The 2020 prediction works out to about 7.5 million cars a year at today's production rates. Let's say that economies of scale bring the cars' average cost down to $30,000 by then. That's a $225 billion-a-year business, just under the entire global sales last year of Toyota, the world's largest carmaker. By 2030, it could be more than three times that.
No one can accurately project the market for a product that doesn't exist yet, of course. But these estimates matter because they are believed, to a greater or lesser degree, by the leaders of most of the world's industrialized countries. And most of them seem to agree with Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's call to get in on a competition "not to be missed." The appeal isn't hard to grasp: The possible windfalls are tantalizingly large at a time when nearly everyone's economy has taken a beating. And the breakthrough is far away enough, and the terms by which victors will be decided are vague enough, that everyone can envision winning.
ON THE AFTERNOON OF JULY 21, Wan Gang and about a dozen other Chinese engineers paid a visit to Argonne National Laboratory. The secure research campus is the direct descendant of the University of Chicago lab where Enrico Fermi conducted the first nuclear chain reaction in the early days of the Manhattan Project; today it is home to the vanguard of the U.S. government's advanced battery research. The Argonne scientists in charge of the work, along with Sandalow, the U.S. assistant energy secretary, had gathered in a conference room to meet Wan and his team.
"You have made remarkable achievements here," Wan told the Argonne researchers. "So today I have many questions for you."
"That's why I am sweating," replied Al Sattelberger, a senior Argonne scientist. The room erupted in laughter -- mostly from the Americans, who were acutely aware that they were the underdogs in their race with Wan and his team.
Although the U.S. government began promoting battery development during the George W. Bush years, its interest in the technology began in earnest after the pre-recession spike in oil prices, which reached an unprecedented $147 a barrel in July 2008. The following month, the newly nominated Obama declared in his Democratic National Convention speech, "For the sake of our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, I will set a clear goal as president: In 10 years, we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East."