Charging forward! What is the future of the battery?
by William Fleming at 08:41 in Battery, Circular Economy, Environmental

​What is the future of the battery and does it have a place in our rapidly changing technologies? Ever since the discovery of electricity, modern man has developed ways to store it through the use of batteries. A discovery in 1938 by archaeologist Wilhelm Konig that has puzzled many is the discovery of the 'Baghdad Battery'. The Baghdad Battery is believed by some to be the early attempts of harnessing electricity and storing it. It has not been accurately dated and presumptions lie in the Parthian period (between 250 BC and 224 AD). It worked by using a five-inch-tall terracotta pot which was filled with either wine, lemon juice, grape juice or vinegar and then inserting a copper tube which further housed an iron rod, this encouraged an electrical current through a chemical reaction. It is speculated that this was used to electroplate artefacts and jewellery in gold.

Since then, if the Baghdad Battery truly was a battery, they have come a long way in their development as seen through our everyday use. In our rapidly developing interconnected societies some say that the battery is out of date and needs to be replaced but what do you replace it with? Another battery? Sure. Bear in mind that every time you use a non-rechargeable battery you are depleting finite resources a few grams at a time. The battery may well be our only way of effectively storing energy but is it effective and what are the costs both financially and environmentally?

Batteries unlike mechanical generators use a chemical reaction using electrolytes to induce a direct current. Due to the chemical composition of modern batteries (often containing super halogens and a multitude of heavy metals from cadmium, cobalt, lithium, mercury, nickel and potassium hydroxide) they become a hazardous waste which if not disposed of correctly can leach into water courses and contaminate land. There is however the Lithium battery. Primary lithium is non rechargeable and lithium-ion is rechargeable, these have slightly lower toxicity levels when compared to those previously mentioned but come with a greater financial cost.

There is a large problem that arises when disposing of ‘flat’ batteries from the household (and some commercial users). When a battery or two is replaced it is common practice to throw them into the bin but many consumers do not know that they should be segregated from all other waste types. There are schemes in place that can be joined to show a company’s commitment in protecting our environment. In the USA and Canada, they use a scheme called Call2Recycle and in the UK we use schemes such as Batteryback. When segregated from other wastes correctly, they can be recycled. However, due to the time consuming efforts of sorting and the different methods of resource removal that are used for each type (pyrometallurgical for dry cells and hydrometallurgical for wet cells) of battery a lot, unfortunately, find their way into landfill. Currently only 4% are re-inserted into the battery production loop, the rest finds its way into other products. Although a small amount it is still 4% less demand on a finite resource which ultimately brings us ever closer to a sustainable future. What if we could increase the amount of recycled batteries re-inserted into the battery production loop by ten-fold. This is what one of the leading battery manufacturers Energizer aims to achieve by 2025. Now 40% of waste batteries returned to the battery production loop will take a huge demand off of finite resource procurement. Watch this space Energizer is leading the way!

Increasing the amount of batteries recycled is one thing but extending the life of the battery is becoming by far the hottest topic in battery development. This is driven even more by the Formula E research teams constantly pushing battery development. Primary lithium and lithium-ion batteries can now out power standard batteries by over 100% unlike alkaline and nickel batteries, in addition to this they have a better thermal stability and the components are earth-abundant. Lithium actually only makes up about 5% in a Lithium battery. They are still disposed of in the same way but what if you didn’t have to throw them away at all for at least 20 years?

Great news, this is actually possible. It looks the same, works the same and does everything you would expect a battery to do. It has been around since its invention in 1859 by French Physicist Gaston Plante and it is the rechargeable battery. With over 10,000 charges it clearly makes sense to have them instead. This development paved the way for a technology that is still used in cars, phones, laptops and other high-tech devices today (The new electric cars use lithium-ion). If the rechargeable battery has been around for 157 years, why is it not standardised across the market. Especially considering you can get well over 10,000 cycles from them (that’s if you have the charging unit). It is far cheaper to buy rechargeable batteries and charge them off the grid with the charging unit than it is to constantly buy new non-rechargeable batteries. Upper estimates are around £9999 pounds of saving as the average price for a non-rechargeable battery is £1. This is exclusive of the cost of power used to charge your rechargeable from the grid. The cost of this power is significantly less than the price factored into non-rechargeable power and its free if you have utilised renewable energy.

So what is the future of the battery and does it have a place in our rapidly changing technologies?  Well yes it does, unless you believe Nikola Tesla​ really did discover how to send electricity wirelessly. What remains is to determine if batteries can start to move away from the conventional non-rechargeable and opt for a better more economical rechargeable lithium-ion battery as standard. We know that the metals are recyclable and that lithium is in abundance. The change comes from influence and as a consumer you can do this by buying rechargeable batteries which will encourage the market to provide more of them at a better cost which will in turn encourage more research and development into lithium-ion batteries.

The ball is in our court and as the consumers we need to encourage the best technologies available. That’s if we want to safeguard our planets resources and keep them available for generations to come.