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I'm creating a near future world where one faction is using high energy density batteries that enable their vehicles to outperform gasoline based technology. Like cold and silent aircraft and helicopters, electric cars with enormous range, ion drive drones, raygun handguns, etc.

The world in general—and Tesla in particular—would love to reverse engineer their technology.

Is it possible to have such battery technology that the world's top companies can't reverse engineer?

Notes:

  • Battery samples are occasionally acquired.

  • Technology level is present age.

  • I would prefer answers at least rooted in science, beside simple hardware.

  • By impossible, I mean technology impossible in the present or near-future (say 5-10 years).

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    $\begingroup$ Hi @Koras, welcome to worldbuilding! Let me clarify, the new battery technology would be also present-day tech and not require any unobtanium to operate? $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jun 10 at 21:19
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    $\begingroup$ Heinlein had an interesting series about a character named Waldo. In it, the major story piece was the Shipstone, which was exactly what you describe -- an amazing battery that nobody could manage to reverse engineer. Of course, they also tried other approaches as well. Does this design need to be immune to espionage as well? $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jun 10 at 21:45
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    $\begingroup$ Helicopters and planes arent noisy because engines but because of the rotors. So there will never be a quiet Helicopter. $\endgroup$ – P.Lord Jun 11 at 7:51
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    $\begingroup$ Reverse engineering reveals the components and contents but not the manufacturing methods or the chemical sequences required to produce the compounds. $\endgroup$ – Carl Witthoft Jun 11 at 18:22

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First of all, the chemistry, structure and principle of operation of the batteries cannot possibly be secret.

Most countries have regulatory authorities which need to approve the use of vehicles on their public roads, or of aircraft which fly in their airspace. One cannot possibly come to, for example, the Romanian Automobile Registration Authority, and say "please allow our automobiles powered by those secret black boxes which have an energy per mass concentration higher than gasoline, and trust us that they don't explode every other Thursday". To get approval to use one's battery technology in automobiles and airplanes one must explain in excruciating detail what is in in the battery, how the battery works to store and release energy, what measures are taken to ensure that said energy release is controlled and does not ever happen all at once and so on.

Since the composition, structure and mode of operation of the batteries must be disclosed, they will most certainly be patented. (A patent of invention is a full disclosure of the invention, in exchange of which the inventor receives a time-limited legally enforceable monopoly on the use of the invention.)

The technology must be reproducible, because in order to get approval from, for example, the American Federal Aviation Authority to use the battery technology in aircraft flying in American airspace, the batteries must be accepted as safe to use. The word of one manufacturer doesn't count. There must be multiple independent assessments of the technology, there must be tons of scientific and engineering literature analysing possible failure modes etc.

So the technology cannot be at the same time be secret and in use on public roads and in public airspace, and it cannot be the case that only one manufacturer knows how make the batteries. But then what can be done?

  • Maybe the batteries use a key component which cannot be manufactured efficiently by other companies. For example, graphene is a form of carbon with very interesting properties. Everybody can make graphene is minute quantities, but at present nobody can make graphene in large quantities; it's not that it would be expensive, it's that literally nobody can supply one kilogram of graphene. Maybe graphene is a key component in the batteries, and there is only one manufacturer who can make hundreds of thousands of tonnes of the stuff.

  • Maybe the batteries use a metal or metalloid which is in very short supply. Everybody can buy some ruthenium, for example, but the total world yearly production of ruthenium is some 35 tonnes. Let's say that an average car needs 70 kg of the stuff, and an airplane needs 700: the total worldwide yearly production would be exhaused in making 500 cars or 50 aircraft. And if ruthenium seems much too common, maybe the batteries use osmium, of which much less than one tonne is produced annually worldwide.

  • Maybe the secret consists in the ability to make incredibly complicated nanostructures out of the ingredients. For example, it may be the case that the extraordinary power density of the batteries comes from the way their electrodes are shaped at a microscopic scale. This can be a manufacturing secret. There are examples in real life -- think of the incredibly small components used in an Intel or Samsung SSD, for example: everybody knows how an SSD works, but very few companies can mass-produce 2 terabytes consumer SSDs.

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    $\begingroup$ "Since the composition, structure and mode of operation of the batteries must be disclosed, they will most certainly be patented." This part is jumping to conclusions. In real life there are certain things that companies forego patenting because they don't want to disclose that thing to the public. For instance, the particular gas mix and process used by Tempurpedic to cure their mattresses is not patented and not known. For the longest time the recipe for Coca-Cola was not known because they kept it secret. High frequency traders do not disclose their algorithms, and so on. $\endgroup$ – Shufflepants Jun 11 at 14:26
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    $\begingroup$ This answer seems to exclude the possibility that the tech was developed by, in conjunction with, or appropriated by the government as soon as it was developed. If the government had control over it in some fashion, they could have a small number of government regulators approve it but not disclose it to the public. It's the same with many technologies that are developed for and in use by the military such as various stealth technologies. $\endgroup$ – Shufflepants Jun 11 at 14:29
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP The economic benefit from gasoline-density batteries would be large enough that some countries would say "sure". They'd get large and increasing economic benefits from this; we aren't talking "better toothbrush", we are talking energy infrastructure replacement. Soon you'd have regions that uniformly approve of it, and those regions would start outpacing the growth of the rest of the world. The consumers and companies of the hold-out states would get pissed that they where falling behind, and politics would solve the issue. The hold-outs would fold, or become backwaters. $\endgroup$ – Yakk Jun 11 at 15:31
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    $\begingroup$ This answer mostly seems to be addressing the aspects of getting a product on the current world market, but OP specified that this is a near-future setting, and that these devices are controlled by one 'faction', not sold on the open market. If, for example, this faction were made up of former defense contractors after a collapse of the US government, I suspect none of the regulatory challenges you mention would be a huge obstacle. $\endgroup$ – Nate Strickland Jun 11 at 19:53
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP, citation needed that top scientists and engineers don't work for the military -- historically this has not been true. The Manhattan project comes to mind as an obvious example, and I doubt the military's many rocket scientists are second-rate either. $\endgroup$ – Nate Strickland Jun 11 at 19:55
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Generally speaking, no.

Any technology is relatively easy to reproduce, given that rival can do a full tear-down of the equipment and possesses comparatively same level tech. It may take a year or two for the competitors to fully figure out the process and catch up with manufacturing, but 5-10 years should be out of question. The world knows many examples of how complex products were copied by competitors (if patents are of no objection). For decades, Eastern Block had been successfully copying Western computers, from OS/360 to PC. Earlier, it took just 4 years to reproduce the Atomic Bomb (and that's even though they didn't have a copy).

The copycat process breaks only when the competitor has a substantial scientific/technological gap with the original inventor, and for any reason is not able to cover it. For example, in mid 1980s USSR finally couldn't keep up with Western computers because semiconductor technology had been advancing too fast, and USSR didn't have sufficient resources to keep up with that.

Having said "no", I admit that it is potentially possible to have a technology that is the result of a "lucky find". For example, one can manufacture a nanomaterial of unique properties, essentially on a whim, and there is no scientific way to figure out the technological process without knowing the key step in the process.

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    $\begingroup$ (+1) Note that the USSR could have kept copying Western computers, if they had tried. It's just there were many other technologies they were falling behind, and western computers could just be bought. If one of these technologies would have been labelled as fundamental to develop as the OQ batteries, they would have done so. $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft Jun 11 at 8:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Rekesoft in general, I agree, I would just like to note that some types of computers at the end of 1980s, as far as I remember, were forbidden for sale to the USSR/satellites, as well as eg. cryptography software $\endgroup$ – Gnudiff Jun 12 at 6:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Gnudiff: Inhabitant of a former socialist country here. In the 1980s the Russians were making ES EVM and the DDR was making ESER, fully compatible clones of IBM System/360 and System/370. The DDR and the Hungarians were making very good fully compatible clones of DEC VAX. Romanians were making two families of PDP-11 compatibles (Coral and Independent). DDR was also making very nice IBM PC clones. In addition we had many CP-M compatible brands, process computers etc. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jun 12 at 11:07
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP Yes, inhabitant of the former USSR here. I am not talking about PC or IBM/370 clones, or PDP-11 as well; but about things like Sun SPARCStations, not to speak about Crays or suchlike. $\endgroup$ – Gnudiff Jun 13 at 19:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Gnudiff: The first SPARCstation was introduced in 1989... As for Crays, the analogous Soviet effort was the Elbrus line. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jun 13 at 20:04
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A real example

Rubycon is a leading manufacturer of capacitor technologies. In the 90's, they developed a series of technologies that allowed them to manufacture more reliable and cheaper caps than the competition. Some manufacturers, as Nichicon, and Elna licensed the technology, but of course that meant that they had to pay a lot, so while the caps were better, the licenses also made them pricier. As such, these Japanese manufacturers concentrated on the "high end" range, low deviation caps.

The Taiwanese market knew that to compete, it couldn't play fair, so they tried to copy the formula. They "hired" a material scientist that defected Rubycon with a copy of the formula and they worked to implement it.

At first, everything looked fine: The caps worked as intended, with a formula that was much much cheaper than the previous ones, and they started selling it to motherboard manufacturers in the late 90's to middle 00's.

The ones who, like me, worked repairing computers at that time we called it several names: "capacitor plague", "cap rot", "bulging sickness"... the symptoms varied: the computer would take a long time to power up, or would refuse to power a couple times, to succeed a third. Examining the motherboard we would notice the caps were bulging.

I remember examining one computer, case open, when one capacitor decided to vent the liquid backwards -usually, they have a "weak spot" above so the explosion, if it happens, is controlled-. It impacted on the rim of my glasses, leaving a nasty scar on my eyebrow.

It seems the guy who brought the formula copied it incompletely, and the scientists weren't smart enough to figure what it lacked.

The result is evident. For the complete duration of the patent, Rubycon and the licensed manufacturers were the only ones able to use this technology. The Chinese cap industry took a hit as most electronic manufacturers switched to Japanese capacitors if only because most people had the idea that Chinese caps = unreliable.

Some Chinese manufacturers eventually relented and licensed the technology. The rest of them switched to the new technology when the patent expired a couple years ago.

How can it be used in your setting

Replace "caps" for "batteries". Make the company unwilling to license the technology, or make it so the conditions are draconian.

It doesn't need to be unobtanium level tech. The chemistry for the rubycon caps was understood, even if the application was novel, but the scientists got lazy and skip many tests to have the product ready (testing is the first thing to go when you cut corners).

An overeager Elon Musk may want to launch an untested formula and not notice the flaws in the design until cars start catching fire. Then, the other manufacturer can sweep a publicity campaign telling everyone that their designs do not catch fire. This is a win-win situation for this competing company: Elon cannot say that is the same design because then he would admit they stole the formulas, but if it doesn't say anything it will look like his team of chemists is simply not competent enough. In any case, it will make them look as far behind the battery race (as the chinese looked in the cap race at middle 00's).

A specially paranoid company can even trigger that backlash by seeding some fake or incomplete formulas, like @vsz said; but real life tends to be more dull; @slovodan.blazeski pointed a very good and sobering remark in his answer: even if you have the formula, trying to do a practical implementation on the run and on a short timespan may be impossible, as you're tackling at the same time problems that the other company had time to tackle sequentially. Knowing that the answer is "42" doesn't do much if you don't know why.

A patent will keep competition at bay for as much as a decade, and by then the company will have released new improvements, also patented, that will keep the gap between them and the other manufacturers.

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    $\begingroup$ There are stories about the company deliberately having some fake formulas around as honeypots to be stolen. +1 for showing a real life example. $\endgroup$ – vsz Jun 12 at 4:08
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    $\begingroup$ @vsz, AFAIK, it was more of a compartimentalization problem (a team worked on the base, formula, another team worked on corrosion inhibitors) so no one scientist had a complete picture (it helps that I tend to think to never attribute to malice what can be attributed to incompetence :D ). But I can totally see this in the context of the question, specially if the companies expect espionage. $\endgroup$ – Stormbolter Jun 12 at 10:24
  • $\begingroup$ "the caps where better" should read "the caps were better". It's too short of an edit for the system to accept it from me. $\endgroup$ – Monty Harder Jun 12 at 17:22
  • $\begingroup$ @MontyHarder: fixed the typo and added more info. Hope I haven't added more typos :) $\endgroup$ – Stormbolter Jun 13 at 8:17
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    $\begingroup$ @AJP My interest in the capacitor plague came from my experience repairing computers, so my understanding of the chemical and legal issues is limited to what I could glimpse from reports -and a fast refresh of the wikipedia page :) -. My guess is that by the time the patent expired, companies had a more complete understanding of the technology and just waited for the comercialization to avoid paying licenses. Also, AFAIK, patents can omit some important details, such as implementation guidelines, and some countries even allow you to redact classified parts until the patent expires. $\endgroup$ – Stormbolter Jun 13 at 13:09
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Even assuming that the battery itself is highly resistant to any and all analysis methods (highly unlikely, given that the technology is "modern day" and there are more people trying to reverse-engineer them then were involved in engineering them) the production of these batteries is vulnerable to espionage.

Going after the production itself is how you get reliable production for yourself.

The factories that make these batteries will need raw materials. (Even if analysis of the batteries doesn't reveal how they work, it will reveal the materials used to make them, which makes locating the factory by this method possible.) The resources needed to create anything on an industrial scale can be tracked.

Not to mention that the genius chemists and engineers needed to invent the battery and create manufacturing for it can also be a way to find the factory. Once the factory is discovered, it is only a matter of time before its secrets are revealed.

If the faction is not considered a hostile or terrorist faction, this will be done slowly and covertly, either through breaking and entering, or turning someone on the inside. If the faction is considered hostile, a special forces team may be sent to seize the factory, both to deny the enemy resources and to capture the technology for the other side.

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Unobtainium

Your precious technology is super nice, super great, and super reproductible. That happens. The only problem is you need unobtainium to make it, and, as the name suggest, it's kinda hard to obtain.

If we look at rare-earth elements, we can see that one country pretty much has the market locked down. If that country needed a weapon for some sort of trade war, it could decide to keep it all to itself, and then the rest of the world would look silly, at least for a good while.

You can create a similar situation in your world, where one entity holds most, if not all, reserves of a particular element, or set of elements.

It can be because a material is specific to one region of Earth, or is plain out of this world (e.g. meteorites, or aliens and demons if you're into that). It can be because the mining and extraction process is extremely expensive, complex, damaging to the environment, somehow immoral, or illegal for some other reason.

Note that the material doesn't need to be used in the battery themselves, it could only be required in the fabrication process. What matters is you can get your hands on it, but everybody else just can't and there is no known substitute.

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    $\begingroup$ Rare earths are not rare, they are dirty to process, that's why world is more then happy to buy them from China. In practice China subsidies world green tech by charging less then quarter of the price that need to be paid then if they were processed in country with strong environmental protection. chinalawblog.com/2019/06/… $\endgroup$ – slobodan.blazeski Jun 11 at 10:40
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    $\begingroup$ @slobodan.blazeski It's certainly true, but China still effectively has a monopoly on it. We don't mine the minerals, we don't have the factories, we don't train the workers. We could do that, but it would take years and billions. The point is this is a scenario where a strategic resource is controlled by one entity. $\endgroup$ – AmiralPatate Jun 11 at 11:24
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    $\begingroup$ A great example of this would be aluminium. Before extraction by electrolysis was discovered, aluminium was more expensive than platinum, and the techniques to cast it were unknown because people simply hadn't been able to work with it much. A simple set of modern cookware transported back to Victorian times would have made you ludicrously rich! Any chemist could have told you that it was aluminium, but no-one could have reproduced it on any scale. $\endgroup$ – Graham Jun 11 at 17:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Graham: I wonder what said chemist would make of my titanium cookware. $\endgroup$ – Joshua Jun 11 at 22:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Joshua That's a slightly different situation, because no-one had seen metallic titanium before 1910 (according to Wikipedia). With the current state of science, it's very unlikely that we'd hit something we genuinely couldn't work out the composition of. But however much better the technology is, we'd need to be able to manufacture it ourselves, in quantity, and at an acceptable price, and those three points are the killer. If the OP wants a modern equivalent, perhaps the battery relies on a 10km long coil of a single carbon nanotube, for example. Easy to analyse, impossible to make. $\endgroup$ – Graham Jun 12 at 11:08
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Too Expensive

The battery could be duplicated but the cost is so incredible that it's not viable. The real tech is the manufacturing process to make said battery cheaply and easily enough to use it in everything.

Other factions might have the battery and can reverse engineer it but they don't have the secret to mass produce it.

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  • $\begingroup$ They can reverse-engineer to the point of knowing what’s in it and how assembled, but that doesn’t tell them how you managed to refine some rare ingredient. Good luck trying to keep that secret, though, if you have any employees. “Two can keep a secret, if one of them is dead.” $\endgroup$ – WGroleau Jun 11 at 15:14
  • $\begingroup$ This is what I was thinking too. If the technology is a black box. You can get inside it, but you don't have the tools to build what you find. $\endgroup$ – Jammin4CO Jun 11 at 18:40
  • $\begingroup$ The tech is at the point where the manufacturing could be completely robotic so perhaps the secret is only known to a tiny few. $\endgroup$ – Thorne Jun 11 at 23:21
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I got four ideas here.

The key ingredient

Perhaps the batteries require the use of some super-heavy element like Tennesine that only has a few minutes of half-life. The people trying to reproduce it can see how it works and why it works, but they have to nuclear fuse atoms to make it and can't find a way to keep the key ingredient stable long enough to actually make it.

Extreme Volatility

Maybe this battery has a housing that protects it from every means of analysing it (X-Rays, etc) and the only thing that people know about what's inside that housing is that it explodes violently when exposed to light, or air, or infared, or sound... or anything else it's been exposed to.

An Organic Component

This ones a bit out there, but what it part of the battery is a living, breathing, lab-grown creature... but only male specimens have been recovered. Loads of people out there are trying to test-tube-grow more, but they all die. Loads of labs have 'stud' specimens around, but they don't have a female to breed them with.

Don't say

Bit of a cop out, but it would make sense that with something this big, a lot of the people trying to reverse engineer it would refuse to share their research. Maybe know one knows why, it just hasn't been cracked yet.

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  • $\begingroup$ I was going to suggest something like the Key Ingredient option. A point against Hydrogen Fuel Cells as a technology is that we do not have enough of one of the materials on the earth to replace all the cars in the USA. The rest of the world would have to go without and we would have to do something else for trucks, buses, construction vehicles, etc. If the contry in question has the only mine for Unobtanium they are the one ones who can make batteries that use it. $\endgroup$ – TafT Jun 11 at 8:26
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It's build off planet

For example: (Artemis by Andy Weir spoilers)

The special fiber optics needed to be constructed under low gravity.
The prototype was manufactured on a secret satellite but of course the moon base was way easier.
The aluminium plant produced the base material as a by product and the infrastructure was already in place.
Having full control over the moon means a monopoly on the only efficient place to produce it.

Anyways, make the environmental production requirements somewhere hard to reach and ideally only reachable by you.
Maybe it needs perfect vacuum, lower or higher gravity of another planet or unfiltered continuous exposure to all sorts of rays and particles coming from our sun.

Having to build a satellite, space station or even an operational base on another planet is easily 5-10 years of research and development.
And then you haven't even started on the physical/practical part of duplicating the fabrication process, maybe your theories are all wrong and those years you had to work it out on paper are useless.

Heck, maybe the faction has enough power to prevent you from launching anything into space?

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    $\begingroup$ Made me think of Dune and the Spice, the only way to fold space and achieve long distance spaceflight, and it comes from a single planet. $\endgroup$ – SLC Jun 12 at 14:53
  • $\begingroup$ To be fair, it wasn't the folding space that the spice allowed, it was warping your brain so you could navigate the folded space... unless I'm misremembering things ^_^ $\endgroup$ – Wayne Werner Jun 12 at 17:53
  • $\begingroup$ @WayneWerner: Specifically, it gave Spacing Guild Navigators a limited form of prescience that allowed them to navigate interstellar space safely and reliably. Without advanced computers ("thinking machines") or guild navigators, 1 in 10 ships disappear when they attempt to fold space for travel. Since advanced computers are banned in the post-Butlerian Jihad future Dune is set in, computers are out, and Navigators are the only option. $\endgroup$ – ShadowRanger Jun 14 at 0:30
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The answer is simultaneously "Yes" and "No" - and the reasons for both are contained within the question's definition!

Batteries with sufficient energy density to outperform gasoline based technology are incompatible with the condition that "Technology level is present age".

If we reduce the definition of "outperform" to "perform better at many daily tasks", like a present-day Tesla in a city filled with charging stations, that's closer to possible.

However, you would have to rely on production technology that is similarly not "present age", but at least a few decades into the future. Hypothetically, thin-film or nanowire based batteries are within the understanding of modern science, but they're decades away from mass production. Such batteries are still short on energy density compared to hydrocarbons.

Batteries that do outperform hydrocarbons are outside the understanding of modern science, and would fall under the trope of "sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". They couldn't be explained by chemistry or capacitance, and since we can't explain them, we can't even speculate as to their source of power.

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Chicken and Egg

The material is theoretically understood by everyone, and its creation involves something akin to a fusion reactor, which can be done efficiently if you already have enough of the material, but there are such small amounts present in stolen items that this is not practical. (Perhaps it needs to be in the form of giant single crystals/pieces/rings which cannot be reassembled from smaller pieces without a reactor.)

This option means that an intelligence operative cannot just observe the process; a large quantity would need to be smuggled out.

Obviously the faction had to produce the initial stuff somewhere. Perhaps they dug it up in ancient ruins, or it's from a meteor. Or, a secret military research discovered a method of doing it using extremely expensive conventional technology. But as long as this "conventional technology method" remains a secret, nobody else can replicate it. They should probably destroy that original facility.

Secret process

In theoretical physics there are many particles that we have never been able to create, and some that we have never observed in nature but are believed to exist. If one faction discovers how to make something, they can then exploit this knowledge. Especially if we add in the "chicken and egg" thing.

Let's say for argument's sake that there is a recent development in physics, which may or may not be known to other factions, but either way none of them have been able to exploit it yet. The winning faction has built a huge facility with half a million carefully-arranged parts and the "blueprints" are stored in bits and pieces in different places.

There could be many ideas here but here is one of them. Let's call it a "black disc", a tiny (and reasonably safe) planar black hole held together on either side by a carefully engineered dense perfect lattice of particles that produce the right repulsive forces to stop the disc from collapsing to a point. How the heck do you build that lattice?

Perhaps these particles are beyond its event horizon; or perhaps they are just subject to such high gravity; but any attempt to scrape some off fails. So the lattice cannot be analysed.

Even if the principle is understood, designing a manufacturing process requires particular flashes of insight. It isn't simply something you throw dollars at. Either the initial scientist(s) found the trick out of sheer luck, or the zeitgeist was just right and nobody else can replicate it.

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  • $\begingroup$ The chicken-and-egg idea is a good one that has immense potential for improvement: The chicken-and-egg material (CAEM for short) in question is required within the process of producing the batteries, but not contained in the batteries. The batteries only contain a different material that's made out of the CAEM. As such, you can buy all the batteries you want, you won't get any hold on producing the CAEM. Only downside: Protecting the CAEM that you have is ... challenging - whole armies will be marching against you to steal such a valuable asset! $\endgroup$ – cmaster Jun 13 at 20:09
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No.

"Present age" technology level implies batteries that operate from chemical reactions, and there just isn't room to increase energy density by more than one or two orders of magnitude.

Burning pure hydrogen produces 120 or so megajoules per kg, which is about 33kWh/kg. If you include the mass of the oxygen needed to combine with it, that drops to about 3.7kWh/kg. Lithium-ion batteries are currently closing in on 5-6% of that (up to 200Wh/kg); some proposed technologies come up to more than 1kWh/kg, within 25% of the maximum available for a chemical reaction.

Ion-drive levitation and handheld lethal ray-guns require more than two orders of magnitude increase in energy density. You won't get there with chemistry; you need at least some new concept for small-scale nuclear power generation, and more likely something completely novel. Cold fusion might have done the trick, if it actually worked. Same for nuclear isomer batteries, especially if you could (a) trigger decay with less energy than it yields and (b) produce energy in a form more useful than gamma rays.

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    $\begingroup$ Shouldn't it be '200Wh/kg' instead of '200kWh/kg'? $\endgroup$ – yunzen Jun 12 at 7:00
  • $\begingroup$ @yunzen indeed, thanks! If only we could have 200kWh/kg... $\endgroup$ – jeffB Jun 12 at 16:43
  • $\begingroup$ To be fair, even current lithium-ion is good enough for cars and small aircraft. It's just rayguns that are obviously silly. $\endgroup$ – user3757614 Jun 12 at 20:22
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I'd say you should implement some sort of self destruction mechanism. Any attempt to open or x-ray the battery would result in an explosion or the like, which renders the battery technology un-examinable. This would of course make the battery itself heavier and more expensive, which might weigh out the beneficials of the technology.

But this won't handle the problem with industrial espionage. You must address this as well.

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I like the idea that the secret is in the manufacturing, not in the final product.

Perhaps the battery relies on some kind of MOF (Metal organic framework) that is impossible to manufacture unless you know the precise steps. You can slice up the battery and discover it's complete structure at a synchrotron facility, yet find nothing about how they managed to create the MOF in the first place.

Industrial espionage could be a problem - once the secret gets out everyone can make it, but you can mitigate that by splitting up the process into multiple steps, isolating those steps in different chinese walled manufacturing facilities.

Perhaps the process is a combination of the work of three scientists, each of which have their own companies and run their own factories. The first two scientists know how to create two pre-cursor materials, while the third is the only one who knows how to combine these materials to manufacture the actual battery material.

This could produce some interesting politics within the faction.

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The big problem is that modern day technology works via incremental improvements and sharing knowledge.

You can get out ahead of other people, but it will be comparatively marginal, and it will of necessity be based on known technology.

Such a research endevour is going to be economically limited to a modest number of researchers with modest budgets. They'll either come up with something novel and useful, or they'll have their research department slashed. Research is blindly groping through the sphere of all knowledge; you don't know if you are getting anywhere.

Long-term research is mostly done by public institutions, and those scientists are rewarded by sharing as much of their results as they can as soon as they can (publish or perish).

When you want to reverse engineer it, you'll have a valuable target (amazing batteries) that you know is reachable. You'll have budgets that blow out of the water the original research team, a fair amount of lee way in not producing results right away, and a concrete object that provides piles of hints asto where to research next.

Now, there are long and deep research traditions that are not public. They are mostly military research, into nuclear or stealth or similar technologies.

Such military research tends to be smaller scale than the public commercial research, but secrets are kept for years, commercial applications are not the goal, and even the products are kept secret. For the most part, people interested in reverse engineering are also keeping their results secret, preventing the attackers from forming a huge collaborative endevour.

This does, however, give us a way for technology to be sufficiently secret that reverse engineering is difficult. There is some long-standing secret military research going on that uses up a non-trivial amount of the world's GDP. It is focused on something else, besides battery technology. Maybe nanoscale construction of materials to make them invisible to radar, or nanoscale construction of fissile cores to permit tiny nuclear devices that can handle decay, or whatever. The point is some serious fundamental research into materials science that "falls off" some military research.

That technology can easily develop in secret for 10, 20, 30 years.

Then someone discovers that it can be used to construct a better battery. You develop even that technology in secret. As an arm of the military, you build a huge battery complex somewhere, use it originally for military purposes.

If you successfully kept the first endevour secret, now your competitors have to reverse engineer 30 years of technology to work out how your construction method works.

Unfortunately, nanoscale technology probably is a bad example; it is currently a hot research field. As is biological manufacture, or almost any other semi-practical high-tech materials science I can think of.

For the science to be 30+ years of practical application iteration beyond the current bleeding edge research, it would have to sound ridiculously science fictiony.

  • Post-trans uranic stable isotopes (PTUs).
  • Nuclear decay suppression field.
  • Atomic-scale macroscopic materials design.
  • Low energy H2<->He reversible nuclear reactions.
  • Non-terrestrial biological energy storage.

The thing is, it would be ridiculous that only one ridiculous technology came out of a completely new branch of materials science.

But, if you get over all of this -- a 30 year long research effort by a nation-state level lab resulting in an unexpected battery technology, which is then nation-state backed into mass production, while successfully holding off other nation-state espionage -- you could have a tech that might take 5-10 years to reverse engineer.

Note, however, that at this time the only one doing this scale of secret research is the USA and possibly China. And China hasn't really been doing it long enough.

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  • $\begingroup$ I feel like making it depend on specific rare isotopes of common elements. If you use rare-enough ones it might even require a specialized reactor to synthesize them. Worth it? Maybe. $\endgroup$ – Joshua Jun 11 at 22:31
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Yes

If you look at current lithium-ion technology, the primary constraint on performance is degradation of the cathode. Increasing the surface area of the cathode tends to improve battery life and output. To this end, manufacturers are experimenting with nano-structuring the cathode to have a complex surface area, which allows for better ion flow and slows down cathode degradation.

The thing about nano-structuring is that it is purely geometrical. If you toss a "dumb" battery and a "finely structured" battery into a mass spectrometer, you'll get the same output. No magic chemicals needed. On the other hand, if you simply cut open a nano-battery and look at the cathode, at the largest scales, it will just look more textured than a dumb cathode. Only when you put it under an electron microscope will you be able to see that it's fundamentally different. However, seeing such a structure won't tell you how to make it. And that's the trick.

You can't really build nano-structures one molecule at a time (technically, with atomic force microscopes, you can, but that's not scalable). So you need a process that outputs the desired structure automatically. It might be a magic set of catalysts that interact in a certain way under certain temperature/acidity/etc. conditions. It might even involve biomolecules or actual bacteria! But in near-science terms, there is no small set of nano-engineering tools. The field is wide open, and I haven't heard of any easy reverse-engineering of a nanoscale product. It will likely happen eventually, but I'm guessing on the order of decades to centuries, long after the technology is mature.

Another example of nanostructuring yielding surprising properties is aerogel. A silicon wafer used to make microchips is a very good thermal conductor. If you try to use it to shield yourself from a blowtorch, you will get burned. The exact same silicon formed into an aerogel just a few cm thick can easily protect an egg from the same blowtorch. But looking at an aerogel under an electron microscope won't tell you how to make it. You have to know how to make it already.

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With access to multiple samples, it could be possible to create at least a working theory on how the new tech works. To make it baffling to the observers, we would require some new science.

New Science

A Ultra-High-Energy Gamma Ray Microscope would open up new avenues in science. A better understanding of the phenomena we attribute to dark matter/energy, better understanding of various biological processes (think photosynthesis) could open up new forms of energy. A larger particle accelerator than the LHC, could show us new layers of elements.

As we are only going 5-10 years into the future the is a limit on how fantastical we can make our future, but our faction could be doing cutting-edge-super-secret-squirrel research now, and it wouldn't be that much of a leap.

As for reproducing the technology:

Scarcity of Raw Materials

A substance that can be synthesized, but is not cost effective to do so in large sizes/quantities.

Examples:

  • Diamonds
    If our faction was the equivalent of De Beers (either economically, or militarily), it would be very difficult to reproduce battery tech that relied on diamonds in large volume.

  • Rare Isotopes
    Uranium isnt particularly rare, but useful isotopes for fission are.

Difficulty of Manufacture

Aluminium used to be one of the most valuable metals in the world until new methods of refinement were used.

  • Space Manufacturing
    Currently, only a handful of nations/companies have direct access to space. This doesn't look to change substantially in the next 5-10 years. While the cost is going to come down for those countries/companies that already have access, third parties could face political barriers (think cold war). Wiki Link

  • Nanotechnology
    Building on our shiny new microscope above - Batteries rely on a high surface area between elements. Even if you examine a plate surface with a current state-of-the-art Electron Beam Microscope, you wont see what a gamma ray scope will, and that's before you try to reproduce it.

Conclusion

Space manufactured nano-tech with rare raw materials. A combination of all of the above could make for a convincing near future without too much hand-wavium.

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  • $\begingroup$ Side note: 'The Three Body Problem' series of books touches on some of the issues here. How do you reverse engineer something when you lack the fundamental physics to describe what you are observing? $\endgroup$ – Glen Davies Jun 11 at 16:03
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The idea of energy systems that simply harvest from a larger source that is then externally replenished have been an idea for a while, with the idea of mobile chargers that slow down the Earth's rotation by producing power, while an opposite mechanism that is connected to trustworthy power sources like hydroelectric increase the rotation so as to prevent future catastrophe.

The implementation of such a system or other form of advanced long range energy transfer could be used to mimic a high energy dense battery. In either case, this system would require monitoring. If the system had an AI-run failsafe so that unauthorized users would either be blocked (for general systems like planetary rotation) or simply not be provided energy (for specific systems like long range wave energy beams).

It's not a battery per se, but it's a mobile charge provider, and would prevent other systems from connecting to the power source. If you wished, you could make harvesting energy incredibly unstable, with the planet needing to be perfectly synchronous with the battery or the beam frequently change in energy, mandating the inclusion of this AI-failsafe in order to be able to access this charge.

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Biologically Efficient Engines

This method requires the other faction to be a different biological creature. The energy efficiency of a typical gasoline engine ranges between 20 and 50%.

A different lifeform can use a novel propulsion mechanism, an example is jellyfish which use rotating vortex propulsion, and are the most energy efficient creatures - aided by the fact that the "engine" is formed of elastic material which automatically contracts to its original form, and does not require further energy to return to its initial state.

It may be possible that such a creature has evolved over billions of years to be extremely energy efficient, and the timescales needed to replicate such a system (to an equivalent efficiency) would be out of reach for many millions of years perhaps. Another example is the human brain: humans have been spending billions and decades to try and replicate brain functionality - and we are still extremely far from building anything close to it (though machine learning for specialised tasks is now comparably good).

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There are some very good answers here. I was thinking rather than having impossible to replicate batteries having the cost to charge them be high. If the faction which has these batteries also has figured out cold fusion so that they can charge them cheaply. The other factions may have the ability to create them but the amount of resources needed to use them is just too high. This will also allow the faction to become more independent as a nation. It could also improve living standards and health making people less likely to give up secrets.

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As far as having technological secrets, batteries are probably the easiest to handwave into being irreproducible from samples. It all boils down to...

What is the function of a battery?

It is to store energy. That energy, if not properly released, can and will destroy the battery and the containing device. Or in other words: High density battery is an explosive, regardless of whether it's chemical or more advanced (e.g. superconducting loops storing energy). Add a bit of handwaving (perhaps even pinch of reality?) and that energy can also be used to destroy any technological information that is used to create the battery.

Normally, there might exist procedures and technologies that can be used to research what a battery has 'eaten', but designing a safety pin that is nigh impossible to circumvent should be within reach of most handwavium experts.

Easiest way would be some sort of tamper-proof casing. That is, if the battery is opened it immediately self-destroys. Puncturing the cell caising is enough to cause regular mobile phone batteries to self destruct. Bit of artistic liberty, and you can have all the critical components melt before accurate research is possible in your advanced battery. Of course, this can also lead to unsafe batteries...wink-wink.

One specific technological advantage could be to have a completely unique logic chip that controls cell-cycling (or other handwaved charging/draining technique), and design the battery such that it will fry first. That way they might have access to fuel-cells but with any tampering they end up with chemical compounds and mechanical structures that cannot be replicated to a functioning high-power battery within a reasonable time-frame. And the possible advantage delivered by this logic? Megawatt class charging for longer lasting batteries within seconds.

If you want more advanced solution, superconductors can rely on very specific crystalline structure. Have a magnetic field support the storage coil and any tampering will immediately collapse the structure and render it impossible to deduct. For the researcher – if still alive! – it might look as a pile of carbon dust instead of the nanodiamond superconductor it was few seconds ago.

Of course, these are no real defenses for social attacks...so, in reality as in fiction, it will be easier to do proper espionage than simply copy hardware samples you obtain.

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They use aluminum-powered engines, not batteries.

There's been news reports every so often about someone building an aluminum-powered engine. For example: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2142693-nano-aluminium-offers-fuel-cells-on-demand-just-add-water/

What we know how to do now:

  • aluminum oxide+energy is turned into aluminum metal.
  • The aluminum metal is combined with water, which turns into aluminum oxide+hydrogen.
  • The hydrogen is combined with atmospheric oxygen and burned, turning back into water and energy.

Why isn't everyone using this? Because turning aluminum oxide into aluminum is a rather inefficient process. (I calculated it out as the equivalent of $20/gal gas. Also, our current setup for aluminum smelting uses coal, and isn't great from an environmental standpoint.) This faction has figured out how to smelt aluminum in a much more efficient manner. When someone goes to "gas up" their car, plane, or raygun, they swap aluminum oxide for aluminum metal. The aluminum oxide is then shipped off to a charging facility to be re-smelted. This means that the only bit we don't know how to do is taking place behind closed doors, but it's the important bit. Getting an engine won't tell you anything useful. All of this is possible now, just far too expensive to be practical.

This has some other implications: namely, that they have the cheapest aluminum on the planet, and aluminum has other uses. It also means that anyone could build an aluminum-powered car, but they'd be dependent on the faction for fuel.

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  • $\begingroup$ A lot of the aluminium produced in the world, is produced using geothermals, not coal. $\endgroup$ – Clearer Jun 13 at 6:47
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Yes use O-ring theory to the rescue.

Assuming that battery is made of materials we all know or at least understand the advantage must be in the manufacturing process.

Since the incumbent has a lot of know-how advantage, the easiest thing for market entrants is to be able to make somewhat working product which they would improve later i.e. the solution is in differentiable space think calculus. If they have enough financial backing, whether from Elon Musk selling bonds or from government subsidies, they would eventually crack it.

So make your solution non differentiable, they have to solve all the problems at once or the battery doesn't work at all or even better explodes. In such problems looking for solution is not better then random search.

They must use the ore from the exact mine in Congo, or it doesn't work. They must make use of certain type of plastic from certain manufacturer or it doesn't work. They must use fabric from certain Peru manufacturer or it doesn't work. They must make it casing in exact atmosphere in exact part of the world or it doesn't work. etc

Make many of this must haves and chances to get the exact solution diminishes exponentially. Each of this problem by itself is solvable but competitors must solve all of them together at once and they don't know is it the problem in the ore, anode, katode, casing, liquid, voltage, control chips or 100 other things. For extra points make that half solution works some of the time but then they explode randomly. The competitors wouldn't know was it the previous changes or some of the newest changes.

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Depending on how subjectively "evil" you will allow this group to be, their battery technology may not be impossible to reproduce, but they prevent others from mass producing generics through various ways.

  1. Through lobbyists and donations they could persuade government officials to do what they want.

  2. Using their own assassins, anybody that tries building a factory just turns up dead, but always by non-suspicious circumstances, which makes it very suspicious but nobody ever gets caught.

It'd be a very conspiracy theorist angle, but wouldn't really explain why.

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Have it made with standard temperature and pressure (STP) metastable metallic hydrogen.

People can scan it all they want and they'll learn what the goal is... but we could be a long way from getting to that goal. We're not able to make metallic hydrogen at any temperature or pressure yet, so perhaps there is a special process to bring it back to STP that is outside our technical abilities. So we find out it's doable, the best and brightest produce their first samples within the next 5-10 years and then it's X years after that before they figure out how to bring it to STP and who knows whether the method we find is economical.

Traditionally, metallic hydrogen is more interesting for it's superconducting and potential fuel uses: as a rocket fuel, with a theoretical isp of 1700s, it would mean you could launch rockets with payload fractions around 60% to LEO. Modern rockets top out under 5%, meaning a Falcon 9 Full Thrust running on metallic hydrogen would require only 7% of the current total launch weight. Put another way, a rocket with the same launch weight as a F9 FT (not a heavy) running metallic hydrogen could put 320,000kg into orbit... that's the equivalent of 2.6 fueled, with payload space shuttles (@ ~122,000kg each) in cargo. No need for the external tank or boosters. The Falcon Heavy would carry 6.8 space shuttles. It would revolutionize space travel for anyone who could use it.

The added benefit of metallic hydrogen engines ("single use batteries" if you will) is you control the supply. Given it's theoretical energy of 216MJ/kg, it's around five times more efficient than gas.

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Another real example —— In the 1980s, the CIA was helping the Afghanistan mujahadeen fight the Soviet invasion. The Soviets relied very heavily on their large helicopters in the rugged terrain. So the CIA loaded them up with Stinger missiles.

The problem is, the CIA didn't want those Stingers getting used against Americans in the 1990s, when those same forces slowly turned into the Taliban and started supporting Al Qaida.

Stinger missiles have a battery. It's vital to heat up the infrared targeting scope in the missile seeker head, and keep it alive long enough to lock on and guide to hit. So it's a fairly high performance battery, inside the missile. Single use, if I recall, not that that's much of a problem given the application.

Anyway, like ordinary lithium-ion batteries today, those batteries had a shelf life. The US military made sure those batteries were tightly controlled. As a result, most Stinger missiles left in Afghanistan are scrap, as the electronics have met the fate of most 40 year old electronics.

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  • $\begingroup$ It's vital to cool down the infrared targeting scope. Stingers used a Battery Coolant Unit which provided thermal power and cooling for the seeker. $\endgroup$ – TemporalWolf Jun 13 at 18:24
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It would absolutely be possible to create batteries which are dangerous/impossible to reverse-engineer, if you have ready access to anti-matter, and the technology to create and shield it. It meets many of the criteria in other answers, but this specific material is a known source of high energy, it is being researched, and we are still decades away from any chance at using it.

Let's think about the shielding mechanism on its own. Some research lab was tinkering around with your hypothetical battery to figure out how it works, and in the process they accidentally released -1mg of antimatter into the lab. BOOM. Suddenly half of Nevada is ground zero.

Even if your team can safely and successfully reverse engineer the shielding mechanism, generation of substantial quantities of antimatter is a many billion dollar proposition at best.

Main downsides to this answer are that it may be impractical for applications so small as a ray gun, and if your world is near future, this technology would require a few radical advances to be made in secret, where most of the research in this space is done in quite public international collaborations using large particle colliders.

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It is not possible to have something that no-one can ever copy but you can have something that is very difficult to copy even if you have one in your hand.

It all comes down to secrets in the manufacturing process. A good real world example is Fighter Jet engines. Russia has been Supplying China with the AL31 turbofan engine for its J10 aircraft for over a decade, and I have no doubt that the Chinese have been taking them apart and trying to build their own, because that it what people do.

But, even having hundreds of these engines, china is still thought to be years away from developing the expertise in control, metallurgy and all the other manufacturing processes to sucsefully produce their own engine.

Now a jet engine tends to have more components working in concert than a simple battery. Yet, who is to say the battery is simple. It could be multiple nano particles which work in concert and very specific concentrations, and dissociate when pressure drops or pH changes making them very difficult to study in a lab.

Now if each of these coponents took years to develop, and each advance built on the other then there is realistically no reason why you could have such asymeteries in technology and struggle to reproduce them even if you have 1000 samples. Many scientific dicoveries happen through chance, lots of hard work, but also a bit of luck. And, if you happen to be the lucky one then you can shoot ahead before anyone realises, and then it is very hard to catch up, without espionage or vast sums of money and time.

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