It might seem to many that the interminable march of new battery technology is on the way to solving a lot of the environmental problems that currently plague us. The most famous example here is of course the rise of the electric car, which is a clear example of battery technology being refined and developed to end humanity’s reliance on fossil fuels. Yet just as finally making electric cars a consumer reality was only possible after overcoming a lot of serious obstacles, so too does the advance of new battery technologies throw up fresh challenges that we did not have to contend with before. If batteries are going to power an energy-efficient and sustainable future, they must become themselves sustainable.
There is now a high consumer demand for new battery technologies that has steadily risen in tandem with the development of these new products. People are increasingly turning to battery power where in the past they would look to different energy solutions. And this extends from large products such as solar panels and the electric vehicles spearheaded by Tesla to household products like the new USB rechargeable batteries from Pale Blue Earth out of Park City, Utah. Batteries are becoming better, and people are using more of them.
The Biggest Challenge of All
One of the major challenges facing the future of battery technology is simply how many of them we are actually going to need. And there is one thing driving this explosion in battery technology that all but eclipses everything else – the rise of the electric vehicle. It is now more likely than not that electric vehicles will totally replace gas-powered vehicles by the early 2030s. Indeed, most of the major car companies have already committed themselves to ceasing production of gas-powered vehicles by some time around then. Electric vehicles are powered by large lithium-ion rechargeable batteries. Consider how many vehicles there are currently on the road, and it soon becomes clear that we are going to need a lot of these types of batteries.
Can production keep up? Theoretically, yes. However, production of large lithium-ion batteries is neither cheap nor particularly environmentally friendly. Lithium mining has been known to cause environmental damage wherever it is carried out.
One potential solution is the development of new batteries that are more energy efficient (meaning we will need less of them). The lithium-sulfur battery is one such candidate. Not only can this kind of battery provide a massively increased energy density, but it could also potentially be up to seven-and-a-half times lighter, making them cheaper and less environmentally damaging to produce.
Other Challenges and Solutions
Other challenges arising from the explosion of batteries are geopolitical in nature. If lithium batteries (of whatever kind) are going to power the future, we should be aware that 80% of the world’s lithium is found in China. Naturally, then, there are concerns about one single country holding a near monopoly on the substance that powers the world’s vehicles.
Perhaps nanotechnology will be the answer. Batteries that make use of antimony ‘nanochain’ electrodes would not require lithium (or much of any material at all). These could theoretically be integrated into the body of whatever they are powering and, in general, decrease the amount of material needed. This in turn could answer geopolitical concerns regarding China’s monopoly on energy.
This technology, and many others like it, are still very much in their infancy. But if the challenges of the future are going to be met, innovation and research in this direction will have to keep up the realities of our energy efficient future.