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Seconds Out: Round 2 - How to Win the Great Battery Boxing Match

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 21stCentury.

Advanced battery technology will also change the balance of power among nations.  Battery technology will factor greatly in the ability to project 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 foreign 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, access to the latest battery technology is possible and 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 Soviets 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.

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Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on May 2, 2017 1:11 pm GMT

If some nation does develop a vastly improved battery, is it likely to be able to keep the technology to itself? So as with other technology, it may be more a question of manufacturing at scale and with quality.

Tesla will announce the locations for 4 new gigafactories by end 2017.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on May 2, 2017 5:30 pm GMT

But recent … restrictions on the immigration of skilled battery scientists and technicians threaten to open a Battery Gap

The cheap labor lobby says everything will fall down without cheap labor.

Meanwhile, about half of Americans with STEM degrees are not working in STEM.

Maybe if our government heavily taxed our non-productive FIRE sectors and made it difficult or impossible to scam one’s self a billion dollars of OPM in them, we could get the bright people back into activities which generate wealth and prosperity instead of stealing it.  Yes, theft is easier than toil; that’s why it should be punished, SEVERELY.

When American battery researchers are receiving $150-200k salary offers, maybe we can use immigrants.  Not one second sooner.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 2, 2017 6:16 pm GMT

Agree with both you and Trump, EP, on H1-B visas.

He’s going to have to find a way to get Congress on board for 2018, because his Executive Order won’t accomplish anything of substance.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 2, 2017 6:35 pm GMT

Hops, that would depend upon the integrity of intellectual property agreements with foreign trading partners. If they don’t respect ours, there’s no particular incentive for us to respect theirs.

A client of mine, a manufacturer of upscale hairdryers, recently moved manufacturing to China. He asked his Chinese trade rep how he might best prevent Chinese knockoffs of his products.

“If your product is profitable in the States, it’s too late…already happening,” he was told. It’s that bad.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on May 2, 2017 8:56 pm GMT

I agree too. Probably a sign of The Apocalypse.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on May 2, 2017 10:20 pm GMT

Oh, with the right people in the bureaucracy it wouldn’t be difficult.  Just subject all but the top-paid few percent of H-1B applications to “extreme vetting”, requiring several man-days of work by a clerk to complete.  Then keep the clerks in some kind of in-service training, meetings or other things 20-odd hours every week, no overtime approved and no pressure for anything but completeness.  Send paperwork requests for e.g. cell-phone call histories to the parent government by snail-mail, that sort of thing.

For real fun, fill the clerk jobs with half-literate affirmative-action hires and make them re-do everything with mistakes.

“Infosys?  Hi, John Doe at DHS here.  We’ve got the approval for your 2017 H-1B application for Manandra Abhalamantrava.”

<squawk squawk squawk Squawk squawk squawk SQUAWK!>

“Yes, it’s 2021, what about it?”

This gets rid of the wage-slavery-for-green-card problem at the outset.  Only a few would ever set foot on a plane.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 3, 2017 12:19 am GMT

Leave it to a Trump supporter to find the most sadistic way to deny someone’s visa. It’s the immigrants’ fault, right?


Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on May 3, 2017 6:02 am GMT

You’re talking like a backdoor way of honoring a campaign promise and supporting Americans over foreigners is a BAD thing.  We owe NOBODY a visa.  We especially owe no oligarchs a way of dis-employing Americans and replacing them with aliens.

A really patriotic administration would immediately terminate the H-1B visas of the job-thieves at PG&E, Disney and other companies which have fired their American staffs and forced them to train their replacements under pain of forfeiting severance, and prosecute both the executives and corporate boards for whatever is convenient.  Supposedly, a prosecutor can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich; these people are guilty of a lot more than any sandwich has ever been.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on May 4, 2017 1:35 pm GMT

I’m curious: In what year should the US have begun your policy of refusing job-stealing immigrants? Sometime around the American Revolution?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 4, 2017 2:12 pm GMT

No EP, I’m talking about the glee you get from making it even more difficult for people from another country to improve their lives. Just saying “no” wouldn’t be enough – you want to inflict a little pain with it. Very Trumpish.

I agree that H-1B visas, with few exceptions, should be immediately terminated. So does Bruce Morrison, the congressman who helped to write the bill that created them in 1990, saying the idea has been “hijacked”. As far as the executives and corporate boards, prosecute them for what? They’ve done nothing illegal.

Trump has broken every one of the ten promises he made for his first 100 days, like pretty much every promise he’s made in his business life (I guess we could have seen it coming). So whether he’ll honor his H-1B promise is doubtful – especially since it’s so effective at helping other billionaires make the payments on their yachts. He can relate to those kinds of problems.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on May 4, 2017 3:45 pm GMT

Yes, Jesper, right around the Revolution would have been just fine.  None other than Benjamin Franklin noted that natural increase was sufficient to expand the American nation (in seventeen-freaking-fifty), and importing people with incomprehensible languages and conflicting cultures was just asking for trouble.

Since then, at the behest of radical equalitarians we’ve imported a whole bunch of people not just with those, but practicing a religion which mandates world conquest by violence.  That’s the textbook definition of treason.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on May 4, 2017 3:54 pm GMT

I’d like you to explain this in detail:

I’m talking about the glee you get from making it even more difficult for people from another country to improve their lives.

What, precisely, stops them from “improving their lives” where they are now?

Do you think we’ve got some secret stash of “magic dirt” that such life-improvement can’t do without?  You should know that there’s no such thing; the abysmal high-school dropout rate of Hispanics doesn’t really change even in the 4th generation.

It’s now undisputable that immigration lowers wages by increasing the supply of labor without commensurate increase in the demand.  Immigration directly hurts Americans.  If the people of India and China and Mexico and Guatemala have had too many children to be able to support and employ them, that is not my problem and I do not want my family and neighbors to suffer for what they’ve done to themselves.

They all need to go back, because if they don’t, much worse things will happen.

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