In this featured article, Charlie Welch, the CEO and Co-founder of ZapBatt, sheds light on a concerning trend within the battery industry – the ‘fast fashion’ approach. Welch reflects on its practices and considers a more sustainable path forward.
As the fundamental component of virtually every power system on the planet today, batteries are currently getting the star treatment. With government tax credits for electrification now available for electric vehicles, solar and storage systems, and more, the demand for batteries to support clean energy and electrification initiatives is expected to increase even further.
Driving this are the consumers demanding reliable batteries for the latest products like smartphones, household appliances and power tools in addition to vehicles like e-bikes and scooters.
With such high demand globally, the battery market is evolving to meet fast-growing energy storage needs. However, with growth comes an escalating issue that resembles the fast fashion industry’s notorious throwaway culture. With an estimate that Americans throw away more than 3 billion batteries yearly, totalling 180,000 tons of hazardous waste, the situation brings many concerns to the forefront, necessitating the reevaluation of our battery culture.
It can be said that we are now living in a “fast fashion” era of batteries, characterized by a rush to produce batteries at an increasingly rapid pace. Unfortunately, this is often at the expense of long-term sustainability and environmental considerations. Much like the fashion industry mass-producing disposable, inexpensive clothing designed and intended for short-term use, the energy storage sector has been witnessing the proliferation and rapid production of batteries with limited lifespans.
Indeed, we have a battery waste problem. Now, how do we solve it?
Reconsidering recycling: A temporary fix
A circular economy involving the recycling and reusing of materials, including batteries, is a great idea. But wouldn’t it be better to prevent the need to recycle a battery in the first place?
Battery-making is “dirty”: most lithium-ion batteries today are sourced from hard rock mines or subterranean brine reservoirs, with a substantial portion of the energy utilized in extraction and processing derived from fossil fuels emitting CO2. In hard rock mining, the extraction of each tonne of lithium releases 15 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.
There’s also no sign of slowing down. According to the World Bank, more than five times more lithium than what is mined currently will be necessary to meet global climate targets by 2050.
While recycling is vital for reducing the environmental impact of battery waste, the industry needs to explore solutions that significantly reduce or postpone the prospect of having to recycle in the first place.
A more attractive option would be to simply consider using longer-lasting batteries.
Extended lifecycles: A practical, forward-thinking approach
While recycling helps to address battery waste to some extent, a better solution would be to reduce the need to recycle at all. Longer-lasting batteries can meet this need.
Extending the lifespan of batteries helps address the concerns associated with our battery throwaway culture and its detrimental environmental effects. Longer-lasting batteries, such as Lithium Titanate (LTO), significantly reduce the environmental footprint of batteries because fewer batteries are disposed of. This minimizes the frequency of battery replacements and helps reduce the overall environmental impact associated with battery resource consumption, production, and disposal.
Resource conservation is another important aspect of longer battery life. By prolonging the life of batteries, we help conserve finite resources. In the 2022 list from the United States Geological Survey, aluminum, lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, and graphite are classified as critical minerals, demonstrating the importance of these resources to national security and the U.S. economy.
Another benefit of longer battery life is the longer life of the devices in which they are used. Longer-lasting batteries extend the useful life of electronics, reducing turnover and the waste generated from outdated or discarded devices. Consumers benefit, as products become more cost-effective over time. In critical applications like medical devices or emergency equipment, longer-lasting batteries offer reduced disruptions and increased patient safety.
While recycling efforts and longer-lasting batteries contribute to slowing down the battery throwaway culture, the need to adopt innovative technologies is equally pivotal in shaping a more sustainable and efficient future in the battery space. Longer-lasting battery concepts are out there, but many face the challenge of real-world integration.
New battery operating systems have arrived, and are about to change that.
Exploring innovation in battery chemistries
In order to seamlessly incorporate longer-lasting batteries into real-world products, battery manufacturers are currently using new battery operating systems to rapidly unleash the potential of chemistries that were previously restricted.
Much like how PC and mobile device operating systems enable multiple apps to work together seamlessly and simultaneously, new battery operating systems work alongside various battery types to assist with consumer product integration.
The battery operating systems serve as the connective tissue that enables the integration of multiple battery chemistries and energy delivery systems. New battery operating systems create digital controls of battery voltage during charge and discharge; this enables any unique battery chemistry to mimic the characteristics of conventional lithium-ion batteries—thereby disproving the notion that only a few lithium-ion chemistries are viable for consumer products.
This adaptability is necessary to overcome the challenge of the lower operating voltage of some chemistries; it also opens up avenues for batteries with extended life, rapid charging, low-temperature operation, and wide state-of-charge range.
More broadly, the emergence of new battery operating systems plays a crucial role in connecting groundbreaking technologies with widespread commercial adoption. This delivers opportunities for an array of different battery chemistries to enter the market to power devices, providing consumers with longer-lasting batteries while doing away with the need to recycle as much.
Remember floppy disks and the headaches associated with downloading new computer programs and operating systems (along with new or different versions)? The ease of downloading an app with a tap of a button will soon be the reality of integrating different battery types into products. The process is about to get much simpler and quicker with the help of new battery operating systems.
Charlie Welch is the CEO and Co-founder of ZapBatt, a battery provider for various markets, including mobility, small infrastructure, and consumer products. As an aerospace engineer, Charlie Welch was a lead researcher at defense and technology companies, testing and optimizing a variety of battery chemistries.
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