November 18, 2010

Read This Now: the Current FP

As you are purchasing reading material for the Thanksgiving holiday next week, I recommend you all pick up the current Foreign Policy and give its natural security-esque articles a read. Here are the highlights.

Author/reporter/blogger Steve LeVine has a long piece on “The Great Battery Race” about both battery technology and the economic/geopolitical horseracing happening in the energy field. According to LeVine, here are the main players:

Two of the likeliest beneficiaries are Japan and South Korea, the top producers of today's cutting-edge batteries and the favorites to develop tomorrow's. But the more interesting -- and potentially world-changing -- rivalry is between the United States and China, both of which are scrambling to get into the game. Each country has a great deal to win by establishing itself as an early leader in advanced batteries, in competition or in partnership with East Asia's technological heavyweights. The contest has taken on ultraserious geopolitical heft for the United States, at its lowest economic ebb in recent memory, and for China, eager to cement its position as a globally influential superpower. Both countries' governments have adopted an unapologetically hands-on approach, attempting to drive innovation from the top down and viewing the project through the lens of national strength. The analogies tend more toward the Manhattan Project than Microsoft.

And a succinct description of this field, and what’s at stake for the companies and countries that lead the way:

…the future of the electric-car industry belongs not to the scientists and engineers who perfect the batteries we have now, but the ones who figure out what comes next, in the 2020s, the 2030s, and beyond. The holy grail is a battery powerful and safe enough to challenge the energy density of gasoline and the freedom of the internal combustion engine -- if such a battery could be made, consumers would presumably flock to cleaner, quieter electric cars. Which is why scientists at Argonne and around the world are working feverishly to develop what comes next.

Consider the potential: Just the currently expected advances in lithium-ion technology will allow hybrid-electric and electric cars to take over up to 15 percent of the world's new-car sales by 2020, estimates research firm IHS Global Insight; by 2030, the figure could rise to about 50 percent, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration projections. The 2020 prediction works out to about 7.5 million cars a year at today's production rates. Let's say that economies of scale bring the cars' average cost down to $30,000 by then. That's a $225 billion-a-year business, just under the entire global sales last year of Toyota, the world's largest carmaker. By 2030, it could be more than three times that.

That is a lot of money. And a great reason to ensure that we’re considering mineral resources as we consider energy options.

Next up and toward the front of the magazine you’ll find an article about a recent academic/historic study of how technology can play a role in the development of countries: “Reinventing the Wheel.” This is a great read, and here is a teaser:

Why is technology so decisive? It's the building block, as our study confirmed, of future innovation -- and that in turn, of course, is the engine of national economic growth. The Romans could not have built aqueducts without prior knowledge of cement masonry. James Watt drew on advances in metallurgy, chemistry, mechanics, and civil engineering -- all of which he had learned in the mining industry -- to make the steam engine. Put the steam engine on rails, and you've got trains. And so on.

Here’s to that notion. Finally, the editors compile “A Plan B for Obama” to suggest policy goals that the administration should focus on for its next two years. These include “Give the Public a Green Check” by NASA’s legendary James Hansen, and “Get Off Oil,” by James Woolsey. All good contributions to your Thanksgiving reading list!