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Is the Green Revolution Sustainable?
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We Are Going To Need More Batteries

The green revolution is happening folks. Countries, business, and people are waking up from their oil-induced hangovers and realizing we are ruining the planet. Tremendous progress in our energy consumption methods over the last few years cannot be denied. For examples of this progress, look no further than the growing popularity of electric vehicles or energy storage units in homes and businesses. But some may argue we are still not going green fast enough.

At the backbone of this green revolution has been the development of energy storage technology. Where would we be without batteries? Nowadays everything from our phones, to our computers, and now are homes and cars all rely on batteries.

Humans have been able to capture renewable forms of energy for decades. Energy sources like solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal are nothing new. But harnessing this power on demand has been a much more challenging problem. What happens at night when the sun isn’t shining, or when the wind isn’t blowing? Or when you are out and about on your iPhone, or working from a coffee shop?

This is where batteries have come in and revolutionize our energy consumption habits. With energy storage we are able to capture and store these renewable sources of energy and use on demand, whenever we need it. On the go!


The Growing Demand For Batteries

Most people don’t know or don’t care about how batteries work or where they come from. As long as they work when we need them to work. Batteries come in all different shapes and sizes. Serving a range of different purposes in our lives. We use batteries to communicate with friends and family. We need batteries for entertainment and getting work done. And now we need real large batteries to power our homes and cars.

The automobile industry recently became one of the world’s largest consumers of batteries. Cars are now in close competition with consumer electronics for largest users of batteries. Several reports and industry forecasts expect battery demand to increase exponentially. This demand is predicted to be largely driven by the rise of electric cars.


Green Revolution

Photo by Chase Lewis via Unsplash


Mom, Where Do Batteries Come From?

Most of our batteries today come from Chile. Chile sits atop the world’s biggest stash of lithium (one of the key materials in the widely used lithium-ion batteries), with an estimated 47 percent of global reserves. China and Australia come next, with about 20 percent and 17 percent of reserves, respectively.

(See here for data source)

The industry has boomed as electric vehicles and electricity-storage devices become available to more consumers. Producers are already struggling to keep up with demand.


New Tech Old Problems

Lithium and other metals we use to make batteries are finite materials dug out of our Earths crust; much like oil. Increased demand in battery supplies could potentially lead us to the same issues we experience regarding oil supplies. In the sense that we are extracting materials from our Earth and consuming these materials at a rate that could jeopardize the environment. This puts into question whether the technological advancements we are making as humans is even sustainable?


Reasons For Optimism 

Unlike oil though, batteries have strong potential to be recycled. Finding ways to reuse the batteries is becoming more urgent. The global stockpile of batteries required for electric vehicles is forecasted to exceed the equivalent of about 3.4 million packs by 2025, compared with about 55,000 in 2018, according to calculations based on Bloomberg NEF data.

China, the worlds most populous country, is expected to dominate this demand. The far east is where half the world’s electronic vehicles are being sold today. As such, the Chinese government is implementing rules that will make carmakers responsible for expired batteries in an effort to keep these batteries out of landfills.

Whether or not private enterprise in China and around the world can make significant advancements in recycling innovation is yet to be seen. So other players are betting their chips on entirely different horses. In academic circles, a race has begun to find a replacement for the soft, white, lithium mineral. Researchers at institutions from the U.S. Department of Energy to Stanford University are working behind the scenes to come up with chemical alternatives.



Circular Economy of Electrics Vehicles  

In an ideal world we could reuse old batteries to make new ones. Without having to mine the Earth for more. Business would win because they don’t have to spend billions of dollars extracting raw material for batteries. Customers would win because these saving in raw materials could potentially be passed down to them. And the environment would win because, well, it won’t have to be drilled into.

Unfortunately, we are still a ways off from living in an ideal world. But it is being worked on!

As we all are familiar, batteries in electronics experience declining performance overtime. Innovative ideas are being developed by the business sector to try and find alternative uses for these used and under performing batteries.

Batteries in electric vehicles will typically be swapped out after about a decade in family cars and four years in harder-working buses and taxis. Lithium-ion batteries used in cars and buses can collect and discharge electricity for another seven to 10 years after being taken off the roads.

While those replaced batteries can’t run a passenger vehicle, they might be ideal for less-demanding tasks such as storing electricity from solar panels and wind turbines, and hoarding power from a regular grid connection when prices are low.

While some companies look to find alternative uses for used batteries. Firms like Tesla, look to innovate even further down the product life cycle of their batteries. The company led by Elon Musk is focusing on recovering the raw materials. If accomplished could bring the electric vehicle economy full circle and make it fully sustainable.



For more information about the circular economy, check out our on the rise of circular design.

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