The rise of battery power has a 200-year history, but it would be fair to say that it is only recently – since the development of the lithium-ion cell at least – that they have truly taken off. There have been a number of drivers of this phenomenon. One of the most important has certainly been the energy output and efficiency of the lithium-ion batteries compared to those which came before. Such increased performance has made possible all sorts of innovative technologies. We need only think here of smartphones and laptops. The electric car revolution, for sure, could not have happened without the development of the large multi-cell li-ion batteries that have been refined to the point of offering vehicle performance in advance of that offered by even the most high-tech of gas-powered engines.
Another major driver of this industry shift has been, naturally, the environment. In the case of electric vehicles, it is easy to see how batteries are a cleaner source of energy. But are the batteries themselves actually sustainable? Many environmentally minded battery companies certainly believe they can be. Take the Utah-based company Pale Blue Earth, for example. Their USB rechargeable smart batteries are directly inspired by the environmental concerns that define our times. Offering a massively increased power output and being able to be discharged and recharged many more times, they are designed to prevent batteries finding their way into unrecycled waste – simply by lasting a lot longer. The case of Pale Blue Earth well demonstrates that many sectors of the battery industry are taking environmental concerns seriously.
Another approach has been to change the composition of the batteries themselves. As things stand, batteries are always composed, at least partially, of metal. And this metal is not always sustainable, or even ethically obtained. So long as metal remains a part of batteries, it could well be argued that they will never be totally sustainable. So what, then, is the solution? It would seem to logically follow that the way forward is to simply get rid of the metal. But is this possible?
New research suggests that, while metal-free batteries do not yet exist, the concept is not totally fanciful and could one day be applied to battery production. This research suggests that instead of the lithium used inside batteries, a composition of polypeptide organic material could be used instead. But if no metal is used, then how on earth can the battery hold a charge?
How it Works
The science – or, more specifically, organic chemistry – behind these proposed metal-free batteries is complex. But suffice it to say, it has indeed been demonstrated that the use of so called redox-active amino-acid macromolecules can create a totally biodegradable substance that can hold a charge chemically. There will be no terminals to these batteries, and instead it is proposed that any non-organic component that is needed to transfer the charge comes from the thing being powered and connects directly to the organic chemical contents of these metal-free batteries.
And if this technology can be made economically viable and practically feasible (something that is still a long way off) then the world could soon be introduced to the first battery that you can simply throw away with the rest of your food waste, safe in the knowledge that it will similarly degrade.
Such a technology would put an end to lithium mining (which is not a sustainable process) and the very poor recycling rates of li-ion batteries. Needless to say, if it can be made to work, this technology will change the very face of the battery industry.