America's Next Innovation Hub
The term Silicon Valley was born from a computer science journalist by the name of Don Hoefner in an article written for one of his local electronics publications. With the term he aimed to describe the multitude of companies whose products were made possible by their electronic transistors of which silicon was the main element. Not until the 1980s, though, did the term alter from a scarcely used word to a commonality in the jargon of the electronics industry. The popularity of the term grew rapidly in proportion to the influence of the companies it was used to describe, from Big Blue IBM to garage band Apple Computer.
The technological improvements these companies were making were made possible by the enhanced computing power derived from an increasing number of transistors being added to a silicon chip. Gordon Moore - the tech nerdy co-founder of Intel - predicted that this pattern would continue for decades to come and that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit would double every two years, allowing a dramatic compounding effect to rapidly advance computing power. His prediction - while far from anything but mere speculation on technology - came to be known as Moore’s Law.
The founding, and subsequent success, of these inaugural companies served as the foundation for a swarm of innovators flocking to the San Francisco area to either be part of a revolutionary new company or to in fact start one of their own.
Steve Jobs aptly described the phenomenon as “the beehive effect” - the observation that an existing workforce in a given geographical area attracts new companies who may in time want access to that existing labor pool (the very reason Amazon was founded as the same city as Microsoft’s headquarters).
Conversely, workers seeking an opportunity to venture into a startup company may be more likely to do so if that startup is located close enough to not require a move. The result is a beehive of innovators congregating around the “honey” of existing innovation.
From an economic standpoint (perhaps the most important standpoint to take), the results of the innovation speak for itself. The San Jose area of Silicon Valley boasts the second highest GDP per capita in the United States, and the area also has the privilege of calling itself home to three of the largest companies on earth - Apple, Facebook, and Google - to whose employees it is happy to dole out plentiful tax bills.
If Silicon Valley wasn’t enough for California - which itself is the country’s richest state with $2.8 trillion in GDP - it looks as if the golden state may become home to yet another technological revolution based around another capricious element; this one tucked away in the top left corner of the periodic table.
In the 1970s a group of scientists, looking for an efficient way to store rechargeable power, discovered that lithium offered a way to have a battery sustain a gross amount of charges and discharges before having to be replaced or thrown out. The technology was then further refined by a few large Japanese companies that at the time reigned supreme in technological innovation before Silicon Valley inevitably left them behind.
The lithium-ion battery has since become a staple in the day to day lives of almost every consumer who finds themselves enjoying the rapid advancements that Gordon Moore predicted decades ago; powering everything from the Tesla’s electric vehicles to the mobile device on which you’re reading this.
When being used the lithium-ion battery moves the ions from a negative electrode, through an electrolyte, and into a positive electrode. The ions then move back to the negative electrode when the battery is being charged. Problems with the battery, though, still remain to be solved as has been shown by occasional mishaps such as the one experienced with Samsung's Galaxy Note 7.
To develop the widely used battery a vast amount of lithium has to be mined from underground, and, as it just so happens, California claims one of the world's largest lithium mining areas as its own.
The Imperial Valley area of California, located just east of San Diego, is one of poor economic conditions. Compared to the gold mine of tech startups just 100 miles away the region is a mere blip on California’s economic map; but the area does feature the Salton Sea which many individuals searching for lithium deposits see as the next major area of economic development.
The area is already host to numerous geothermal energy plants, which, if properly constructed, could be altered to co-produce renewable energy and lithium, as explained by New Energy Nexus. The area would then serve as an epicenter for new innovations focused on renewable energy and lithium based production, namely batteries.
Some efforts are already being taken by companies in the U.S. such as Berkshire Hathaway Energy who has already started on a co-production initiative in the Imperial Valley area to simultaneously supply renewable energy and lithium. The country’s largest lithium-ion battery factory is placed just one state over in Sparks Nevada, co-owned and operated by Tesla and Panasonic, which churns out 3 million battery cells every day, and which employs over 3,000 people. Tesla is also planning the production of a new U.S. based factory in Austin Texas where its newly released Cybertruck will be built.
In 2019 global sales of electric vehicles reached an all time high of 2.1 million, bringing the total number of battery powered vehicles to 7.2 million according to S&P Global. The trend shows no sign of slowing down with GM, Ford, and Chrysler all releasing new electric models over the past year.
Just as important is the rapid shift being attempted to replace the country’s existing energy base to renewable resources and with an energy focused president-elect set to take the White House on January 20th the demand for renewable energy will only be increasing.
The biggest problem yet to be completely resolved within the renewable energy field is the effective time-shifting of power generated through renewable resources. Powering a city with the energy from the sun is a sound, and audacious, idea, but for most places on earth, the sun is only around for half the day. The process of storing the energy for later use remains to be completely worked out; a problem also relating to wind energy as well. Whatever solution the world comes up with though, Lithium will undoubtedly play a major role.
The U.S. currently lags far behind China in the rapid shift to renewable energy and the adoption of electric vehicles. The communist country claims the world’s largest electric vehicle market with 1.2 million electric vehicles being sold in the PRC in 2019. To push the matter further President Xi recently set a target for his country to be completely carbon neutral by 2060, and China’s next 5 year plan - set to be released March 2021 - will assuredly focus on this momentous goal.
The United States’ closest rival also has a hold on the majority of the lithium mining taking place worldwide with Australia, Chile, and Argentina extracting vast quantities of the element and having it transported to China to be used in battery powered devices.
To have even the remotest chance of surpassing - or at least keeping up with - China in the rapid shift to renewable energy and electric vehicles, the United States should not waste any effort in developing what could be the start of another technological revolution with battery powered devices playing an ever increasing role in our daily lives. The development of a “Lithium Valley” would have a similar magnetism of innovation as Silicon Valley has had and would give the country a fighting chance to be the leader in another industrial shift. Without rapid movement and bold innovation the country will cede the title of “leader” to President Xi’s empire.