Thursday, December 11, 2008

It's The Battery, Stupid

In 2002, American venture capital invested $4.6 million in the research technology to improve the efficiency of electric batteries, and this was less than what the cosmetics industry invested in research to make better deodorants and hair shampoos for women. By this year (2008), the amount spent in the U.S. on research to build better batteries has grown substantially to about $200 million (estimated for the full year), but this still represents only a fraction of the estimated $3 billion that is spent on battery science around the world.

The majority of the research to improve battery power has always been done in China, Japan, and South Korea— driven by the need for more battery power in electronic items like laptops and iPods, most of which are produced in these Asian countries. The upside to this situation (for the Asians) was that much of this battery technology funneled down to the car industry where it was applied to hybrids at Toyota and Honda. This, in turn, helped give them a ten year head start over our big three American automakers in the rush to market “green” automobiles. As things stand now, we will probably never catch up, and cars will join television sets in the category of items produced exclusively abroad.

It didn’t need to be this way. Unlike cosmetics, batteries involve electricity, and two of the foremost institutions where the behavior of electrons is studied are right here in the U.S.A.— Argonne National Laboratory and Oak Ridge. However, these are run by the Federal Government, and are subject to Federal funding priorities. During the years 2000 up to the present, these physics research facilities have been forced to languish under the same anti-science bias that has crippled the search for stem-cell therapies and global warming solutions. The stumbling block was, and still is, the Bush Administration’s infatuation with scientific ignorance. As the big three CEOs plead for money to save their dying car companies, we all need to remember who to thank for this situation.

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