So the United States has done what any outmatched competitor would do: It has looked around to see who its friends are. Foremost among them is South Korea, which currently accounts for 33 percent of the lithium-ion battery market. Much of Energy Secretary Chu's multibillion-dollar investment in the battery industry isn't going to American companies, but to South Korean ones with assembly plants in the United States -- enough, American policymakers hope, to build a strong production base while they continue to try to create the batteries of tomorrow. Of the U.S. stimulus awards to battery-makers, the second-highest sum, $160 million, went to Seoul-based LG for a factory building lithium-ion batteries for the Chevy Volt in Holland, Michigan. "We want to get these cars to market," Sandalow told me. "And if the only supplier right now is elsewhere, that's a reality some of our businesses will have to deal with."
FOR ALL THE EYE-POPPING DOLLAR FIGURES thrown around when governments talk about the battery race, only one number matters to the scientists who are actually running it: 1,600. That is the number of watt-hours per kilogram of gasoline, the energy potency that people have come to expect from their personal transportation. Today's lithium-ion batteries produce only one-eighth that amount; scientists believe the laws of physics will keep them from getting much better than double that figure, a paltry 400 watt-hours per kilogram. Ultimately, the winner of the battery age will be the country whose technology comes somewhere close to crossing the 1,600 bar.
Winfried Wilcke, a program director at IBM's San Jose, Calif., laboratory, has been tasked with getting there. A physicist and brilliant polymath, Wilcke worked on heavy-ion nuclear reactions at Los Alamos National Laboratory before moving to IBM, where he developed the models on which some of today's most powerful supercomputers are based. Lately he has turned his attention to lithium air, a technology that would replace some of the crucial heavy and expensive minerals in today's batteries with, quite literally, air. In conversations I had with him over the past year, Wilcke sounded optimistic that his team would succeed -- not soon, but perhaps in the next decade. Even if IBM could get lithium air reasonably close to the performance of gasoline, Wilcke told me, the auto industry would be "dancing in the street."
But lithium air has many skeptics. Jeff Dahn, who researches lithium-ion technology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, believes the breakthroughs Wilcke envisions are beyond the possibilities allowed by physics. "Lithium air is an oxymoron," he told me. "I personally believe [it] has no place in any discussion of advanced battery chemistry for policymakers." He enumerated the reasons: "It's a totally unforgiving technology. You have to prevent moisture in the air from getting on the lithium. You need a flow field in the cell, and pumps. The cost will be through the roof. Lithium ion is so easy by comparison."
The disagreement illustrates just how difficult it is to predict the outcome of the battery race and just how ill-suited analogies are to the geopolitically charged technological competitions of the past -- the atom bomb, the conquest of space, the perfection of the semiconductor. Compared with the rocket scientists who knew the physics of launching a rocket to the moon long before they figured out how to accomplish it, today's battery researchers are operating without a map. The breakthrough that makes the technology a reality could come from any number of avenues of exploration -- or not at all.
But the same ambiguity that makes the battery race so daunting is the source of its appeal to governments and scientists alike. All believe that someone, somewhere -- whether it's in a lab at Argonne or one in Shanghai -- will make the transformative discovery. For them, the only thing worse than losing the battery race is not competing at all.