Advanced battery technology is one of the critical technologies that will shape the 21st Century. The ability to provide untethered electric power is an essential condition for advances in drones, robotics, light and heavy vehicles, consumer electronics, telecommunications, the Internet of Things, implantable medical devices and a host of other new technology systems. Businesses will rise and fall based on their ability to innovate, produce and sell those systems in the economy of the 21st Century.
Advanced battery technology will also change the balance of power among nations. Battery technology will factor greatly in the ability to project future military power. A nation whose drones can fly longer, whose rails guns can shoot farther, and whose ground forces can be less dependent on fuel supply than those of other nations will have profound advantages on the battlefield. Each of those attributes turns to a large extent on the quality of advanced battery technology available to the forces in question.
Many nations are keenly aware of the critical role that battery technology will play in determining the balance of power in the 21st Century. Certain governments are providing tens of billions of dollars in direct and indirect subsidies to their scientists and battery companies in order to ensure their national primacy in that technology. It is no accident that today about 88% of all lithium-ion battery cells are manufactured in Asia.
It is too early, however, to mourn the United States’ loss of the battery race to Asia. Batteries are not a race. They are a boxing match. A fighter can lose several early rounds but still win the match if he conserves his energy and plays to his strengths.
The United States has one considerable strength that may yet allow it to salvage victory in the boxing match that is battery technology. Notwithstanding its loss of current battery manufacturing capacity, the United States remains the most important center of battery research in the world. The basic technologies going into the lithium-ion cells being manufactured in Asia were largely developed by U.S. scientists in U.S. labs. So long as that science and technical expertise stays in place, a renaissance of advanced battery manufacturing in the United States remains a realistic possibility.
Two factors account for this advantage in battery research. The first is the high quality of U.S. research institutions. According to The Best School’s ranking, 85 of the top 100 universities are in the United States, drawing researchers and students from around the world. The second factor is the fact that many top foreign-born battery researchers simply prefer to live in the United States. This is a happy dividend of the political freedom and personal liberty that native-born Americans often take for granted.
But advanced battery research and expertise in the United States is in great peril. Increasing restrictions on the immigration of technical workers combined with massive proposed cuts in federal research funding threaten to deprive the United States of its technological edge. The new U.S. administration has proposed cuts of nearly $70 billion across all sectors of civilian research funding–this at a time when potential foreign rivals are actively doubling-down on advanced battery research and development. If an enemy of the United States wished to destroy its research and development advantage in battery technology, it would have a hard time finding a better way to do so.
That some of the civilian research being defunded might be moved into military research is of little comfort. Battery research focused on military applications is important. But it will be no substitute for the loss of civilian battery technology and civilian scientific expertise that the proposed defunding will cause.
There was a time when there was a vast difference between the technologies available to the military and those available to private sector companies. That time has largely passed. As innovation in information and electronic technology has accelerated over the past two decades, a compression of military and civilian technology has occurred.
A few years ago, shortly before his untimely passing, I had a conversation with Captain Chuck LaSota, former commander of Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) Crane. Captain LaSota remarked that he had never been so concerned at any time during his career about the technological parity between the U.S. military and its potential adversaries.
I questioned whether he was serious. After all, I said, he had lived through the 1960’s and 1970’s. He had seen the Cold War, Sputnik, and the Missile Gap. Surely the Soviets had at least come close to technological parity if not surpassed us at certain points in time?
No, said Captain LaSota. The Soviet could make some really big things. But their technology was second rate. The U.S. military always knew that. But today, he said, when I walk through Radio Shack I am just amazed by what I see on the shelves. And anyone can buy it.
Battery technology is one of the areas where military and civilian technologies are compressing. The batteries being developed to power electric cars and balance variable renewable energy on the grid are very similar to the batteries that power drones, shoot rail guns and allow troops to operate longer in the field without resupply. Cut funding to one area of battery research and all battery applications, including military applications, will suffer.
Advanced battery technology is critical to the future strength of the U.S. economy and to the ability of the United States to defend itself. But recent proposed cuts in federal funding of civilian battery research and restrictions on the immigration of skilled battery scientists and technicians threaten to open a Battery Gap as menacing and as dangerous as the Missile Gap that Captain LaSota faced in his youth.
Those in the U.S. battery industry must sound an alarm at the coming loss of U.S. leadership in advanced battery technology. I am quite sure that Captain LaSota would have. The threat of a Battery Gap is real and the consequences of its opening, both civilian and military, will be profound. This is a boxing match we cannot afford to lose.