Isaacs describes the R&D problem: “But first, we have to discover a way to make a battery that ‘breathes in’ oxygen from the air to discharge electricity, then ‘breathes out’ again to recharge. Then we have to convert those discoveries into battery systems that can be affordably mass produced, we have to put these technologies into cars that consumers want to buy, and we have to do it all before our international competitors catch up.”
This tall order shrinks in the light of one glowing, indisputable reality. The US, over the years, has proven better at accomplishing this sort of grand technological leap than anyone else on earth. For a century, we have been the world’s engineers.
Enhancing the future of the proverbial children
Right now, the political world, globally, is fixated on budget crises and demands for austerity. Leaders from California to Greece to Japan are reluctant to invest in any sort of long-term R&D, lest "our children and grandchildren" end up too poor to pay the bill.
But today, there's no better way for public and private investment to enhance the future of those proverbial children and grandchildren than in research that can, and will, vastly multiply the capacity for electric power storage. Battery power has greater potential to positively alter the future of American competitiveness -- and American freedom -- than any other technology in the 21st century.
In his book on this subject, Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars and the New Lithium Economy, Seth Fletcher quotes an analyst anticipating the moment when the price of the "current generation" of batteries slips below the price of oil (which this week crept beyond $100 a barrel): "It's game over for gasoline."
When the game does end for gasoline, it's also over for the House of Saud, and for the grip of the oil and gas lobby on the US Congress. These two blessings alone merit an all-out American effort to win the R&D race for what Fletcher, a senior editor at Popular Science, calls the "superbattery." The superbattery means energy independence, a mission that ought to be regarded, by our national leaders in government and industry, as equivalent to our greatest achievements of the past.
Under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, America built -- among many grand projects -- the Hoover Dam and the Tennessee Valley Authority, not to mention the Manhattan Project. Under Dwight D. Eisenhower, America created the interstate highway system. Under JFK, and his successors, NASA took over the space race, bypassed the Soviet Union, and put three Americans on the moon.
All of these triumphs, and dozens more, began as engineering challenges. The search for a battery vastly more powerful than the mutant Energizer in today's Chevy Volt is an engineering challenge of equal, if not greater, importance, although its cost is likely to be a fraction of what we spent on electrifying the South or criss-crossing America with highways.