Over time the search for fuel has gone from the discovery of fire to steam engines, fossil fuels, nuclear power, solar power and battery energy storage systems (BESS). How to produce and store energy is a quest as old as we are.
The battery itself is nothing new, it’s simply a method to store energy for later use. The familiar dry-cell D battery was invented in 1898, the A battery in 1907, the AAA in 1911, and the rectangular 9v battery in 1956. And the lithium-ion batteries used in Teslas, iPhones and laptops have been used commercially for over thirty years. So, while an EV that reaches 250 mph and travels 300 miles on a single charge may seem like advanced technology, the batteries it runs on are not. I promise I won’t dive as deep as I want to into the science of batteries, but I can’t help but include a couple of links at the end.
We are at the beginning of a battery-powered era. Millions of EVs are now rolling out onto our roads and we need batteries to power them. To meet demand, enormous capital is going into the construction of giga-factories and rivers of cash are flowing to R&D in electricity storage. Battery technology startups in North America are receiving funds from private equity investors, as well as government entities like the U.S. Department of Energy and Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) Canada. What do we hope to achieve? Is it the promise of greater mobility? Our hopes for a greener future? Or, the potential profits to be realized by joining the green economy? I would say, the answer is “yes, yes, and yes.” Money, mobility, and sustainability.
Battery power once seemed to offer a clear path to clean, efficient energy, but the realities of battery production and disposal have tempered enthusiasm. Batteries require large amounts of raw materials, and mining for them has environmental and human rights impacts. The soaring demand for cobalt, a key component of lithium-ion batteries, can often be dependent on miners who work in harsh conditions in Africa, which is where 60% of the world’s supply of cobalt is sourced. Batteries also threaten to create tons of electronic waste as they reach the end of their lives. While efforts are being made to improve the material supply chain and millions of dollars are being spent to extract minerals from old batteries and keep them in circulation, these problems have not yet been resolved.
It feels certain that research will yield the technology we need to sustainably produce, use and re-use batteries. And I am hopeful that we won’t see too many instances of “technology for the sake of technology,” where a product is only a novelty, not the solution to a real problem. I still can’t really explain why I need an AppleWatch AND a phone, or what good the smart pen with a camera that captures and stores your notes is when your handwriting is illegible, which is why you wanted the smartpen….
Of course, we do see cases in which battery-run technology enhance our life experience. For example, lithium-ion and lithium-polymer batteries are used in diverse medical devices such as pacemakers, external defibrillators, surgical tools, back-up monitoring systems and powered prosthetics and orthotics. There are everyday moments and tasks that are made quietly better because of batteries: A whole new category of products has developed from the integration of Batteries – MicroMobility – roughly defined by their usage as transportation, with minimal weight and speed.
Out for a Stroll….longer
Why add a battery to a stroller? Don’t we want the exercise of walking behind a stroller in the fresh air? Isn’t a lengthy stroll a great way to calm an infant? Yes, but it’s equally true that an “e-stroller” can reduce the effort involved in pushing the stroller uphill and over uneven surfaces, and lengthen the walk and open up new routes through the park and around the neighborhood. A battery system can also help you to brake on descent and power over rough ground, giving you the freedom to go off-road--and bring the stroller to a halt if you lose control. Some e-strollers have a rocking function to help calm the baby—and the parents.