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The race to build the better battery the world desperately needs

We're going to have to do better than this.
We're going to have to do better than this.
David Becker/Getty Images

By Jane Greenway Carr

Jane Greenway Carr is an ACLS Public Fellow and Contributing Editor at New America.

This piece was originally published in New America's digital magazine,The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

"It's meant to be a thriller," says Steve LeVine of his new book, The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World, that "takes the reader into the world of the battery scientist." While a bit tongue-in-cheek, this description underscores the high stakes involved in the global dash to create a battery powerful enough to run an electric car 300 miles on a single charge. The current sprinters? Japan, South Korea, China and the United States.

There aren't very many inventions that can do substantial good in the world and help their makers get wildly rich in the process. But according to LeVine, Washington correspondent for Quartz and a Future Tense Fellow at New America, a superbattery-one that will improve upon the lithium-ion battery and thereby take electric cars mainstream-is just that kind of invention. Those who bring it to market will cash in to the potential tune of $300 billion and the rest of us will breathe progressively less polluted air as we traverse the roadways in our all-electric vehicles.

In The Powerhouse, LeVine reveals the drama generated by the lithium-ion battery by tracking two parallel narratives: the work at Argonne National Laboratory's battery program, home to scientists LeVine calls the world's "battery geniuses," and efforts of Silicon Valley start-ups like EnVia Systems (the first licensee for Argonne's material). Researchers in both settings are racing to build a product marketable enough to secure contracts and a billion-dollar IPO. The book, says Levine, is "reflective of that environment...where so much hope and buzz and really a fever had come to center on the battery."

As these dual stories unfold, LeVine explained at a recent event at New America, "It's not quite a collision course, but they're driving down the same lanes." As a storyteller, he added, it was important to him for the book "not to be a hagiography about technology and invention," but rather an account of how innovation happens, viewed through the lens of a colorful set of characters.

One of those characters is Jeff Chamberlain, manager of the Argonne battery program, who is "this evangelistic motivator, painting the stakes in very large colors." Those brush-strokes add up to a portrait of fear, notes LeVine, because the pressure is fierce to hit the finish line first. Since Sony commercialized the lithium-ion battery in 1991 and Toyota unveiled the Prius in 1996, transformative battery innovations have been scarce, and both President Obama and China's Minister of Science and Technology have vowed publicly to put one million electric cars on the road in 2015 (a goal that neither will achieve this year but to which both remain committed in the longer term, though China recently saw a surge of electric vehicle sales in 2014 ). The idea that China might win the battery race is, to LeVine's mind, the "bête noir" for scientists like Chamberlain.

Another theme that LeVine emphasized in his conversation with Donna Harris, co-founder of the start-up hub 1776, was the effect of what could be called the "Bell Labs diaspora." Alumni of Bell Labs, which developed the transistor in the late 1940s, populate the entire ecosystem of the battery race, from university laboratories to government agencies to industry. Between Energy Secretary Steven Chu's proposed creation of "Bell Lablets" and the widespread realization that Bell's managerial system could be conducive to greater innovation, previously bitter rivals like Matt Thackeray's Berkeley lab and Chamberlain's team at Argonne managed to forge collaborations that made them both more competitive in the superbattery sprint.

It's important to remember that neither the electric car nor the superbattery are fait accompli, LeVine pointed out: "Just because we want them and the stakes are so high doesn't mean they will happen." To reap the dividends, all the stakeholders in the race need to re-think their assumptions. For Chamberlain and his compatriots, this meant admitting that they need a new roadmap, to "understand the science [of batteries] at the atomic level" and work from there.

For those in business and government, LeVine argues, re-thinking things means putting together a format for participation that "jettisons our allergy to violating [a] free market ethos and coming up with a formula of intellectual property-sharing that involves industry and the inventors." He dismisses as "foolhardy" the industry forecasting that predicts that 25 years from now, electric, fuel-cell, natural gas, and plug-in hybrid cars will only comprise 5 percent of the market. "We live in an age of utter disruption," he marveled, citing shale oil and gas as two examples of game-changers that no one predicted.

Along with cutthroat competition and the promise of future innovation in the race for the superbattery, warns LeVine, comes a healthy dose of bullshit, which he says is often the cost of doing business in technology-no matter whether you're in a lab or a start-up. Looking back on his research for The Powerhouse, LeVine was surprised by the pervasiveness of the "exaggeration, hype, and lies." He reflected to Harris, "Edison famously said in the 1920s that batteries-especially rechargeable batters-are a special province of liars. And there is a twist in the book where we learn that law. That was a very big shock to me."

But when you've published a book about a technology race that's still being run, twists and turns come with the territory.