Marketplace - American Public Media
There's an international battle happening to find the next super battery to run electric cars, cut emissions and reap the economic benefits.
"The primary players in the pursuit of the super battery... are Japan, South Korea, China and, of course, the United States," says Steve LeVine, who details the race in his new book, "The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World."
LeVine says the U.S. is currently trailing behind Japan and South Korea, but that doesn't mean America is out of the race yet. The U.S. has a long legacy of battery innovation, including the now-ubiquitous lithium-ion battery.
Argonne National Laboratory outside of Chicago currently has a shot at developing the next generation of batteries. In fact, it was Argonne scientists who came up with the battery technology currently used in the Chevy Volt.
But even as some of the world's top scientists race to innovate, electric car maker Tesla says it's just fine with the old lithium ion tech. Tesla founder Elon Musk is betting against the battery scientists by choosing to just take batteries "off the shelf," LeVine says.
"The next thing he has in store is a battle with GM," LeVine says. "Both of them say in the year 2018 they're going to have $35,000 cars that are going to go 200 miles on a single charge."
As battery technology gets better and more people drive electric cars, world markets will also be affected.
"When batteries take off, they're going to take a lot of oil off the market," says LeVine. "The same impact that you're seeing shaking up countries around the world, the price of oil going down, you're going to see that happen again in the next five to eight years, because of what's going to happen on the electric grid."
More from our extended interview with LeVine:
On the global battery race:
I just started on Google plugging in one country after another: “electric cars” and “France.” And “electric cars” and “Brazil.” And by the end of this session on Google there were 20 countries. Basically any major country you could think of was in this race. They saw the new age. The new boom. A potential economic boon for their economies, a new age in electric cars, in batteries. And each one of them said “We’re going to win it.” Wow, my big thing is not just energy, but how it affects geopolitics.
On how innovation really works:
Invention is the province of big exaggerators. And big deceivers. And batteries have been a province, a special province, of these type of individuals. Hype-sters. Edison famously talked about the liars and swindlers who tend to gravitate to batteries. And that’s because the stakes are so high. If you can invent the super-battery, you enable so many things. It is, in my view, the biggest game-changer of any on the planet. Apart from peace among all nations, it is very big.
On the future of electric vehicles:
GM says its Bolt, that’s what it’s calling its car, will be on the market at the end of 2107. [Elon] Musk is calling his the Model 3. This for me is the inflection point. It’s the signal that electric cars in just three years, less than three years, are going to be in the market …
We are headed into a long period of disruption, and I think it includes electric cars.