By Michael Mo
It’s happened to everyone – you order a new laptop computer, or maybe those remote power tools, and everything is fine. Then, at some point, it wears out or gets damaged or it’s just time to replace it and you feel a little stuck on what to do with the old battery. So, what do we do? We keep them, simply because we don’t know what else to do with old, used up lithium-ion batteries.
We know we’re not supposed to just toss them in the garbage. If we do, they end up in landfills where they can leak toxic materials or trigger dangerous chemical fires. That’s no good.
Some cities have battery and technology recycling programs and drop off centers. But those programs are largely inadequate and usually only in the cities and larger towns, (those that can afford to run them), leaving out massive chunks of the battery-consuming public.
Moreover, the battery reclamation programs and facilities that do exist put the burden on the consumer to find them and get their old battery packs to those locations. Even the cities with the best programs, the ones that will come and pick up batteries, make customers call for an appointment. And we all know consumers – every step you add makes the behavior you want less and less likely.
As a result, millions of old or used battery packs sit in bins in someone’s garage, or bagged in their closet - just because every other option is nonexistent, dangerous, or burdensome. That’s bad all the way around.
For starters, old batteries are dangerous. Age, along with vibration, damage and frequent cycling – the charging and draining of batteries – are among the biggest factors in the battery failures that can lead to fires and explosions. In other words, keeping piles of old batteries tucked behind your winter coats or oil-soaked rags is not a good long-term policy.
Lack of an easy disposal and recycling process for old lithium-ion batteries is also a problem because it makes batteries, and the things they power, more expensive.
That’s essentially a market problem. Not enough old batteries going into a reuse system means that those systems are exceedingly difficult to scale and, therefore, unprofitable. Lack of profit opportunity means lack of investment to bring the costs down. Which means, down the line, that every new device that uses lithium-ion battery is almost certain to be using a brand new one – new labor, new factories, new materials and so on. And many of the minerals and materials that go into a lithium-ion battery, like graphene and lithium, are neither cheap nor easy to get. Getting new product every time gets expensive.
It’s not just a financial burden, but an environmental one, too. The continued mining of the materials used in a battery, with little or no recycling, is a bad policy.
With all that risk, cost, inconvenience, and environmental impact building up from not having a decent way to recycle and reuse lithium-ion batteries, the real stumbling block may be surprising: shipping.
Because batteries can be dangerous, no one wants to load them into trucks that rattle down highways or, perhaps deeply frightening, onto airplanes. This puts the burden back on consumers (to hand-deliver their old batteries to centers) and on cities (to transport them).
You see, new batteries, like the ones that come with your new laptop, are more stable on account of the fact that they are not old and are always shipped below 10 percent charge. That means they don’t carry much energy. It’s also why, when your new product arrives, you need to charge the battery. Old batteries, however, can be faulty or damaged. And there’s no guarantee any one battery is not still 90 percent charged – packing a real punch should it fail by igniting its neighboring batteries into a fireball.
Therefore, if we can find a better way to ship old batteries - a safe way to pack them, so if they do fail, the danger is contained – we can unlock an entire supply and recycling business. If the big shipping corporations could find safe packing materials, then battery and device makers would be able to start including those materials as postage-paid mailing bags, returning old batteries directly to processing centers. Congress or other rule-makers may even insist on it.
The good news is that a battery-proof shipping package may be on the verge of reality. In fact, it’s already here. The technology is sound, and the commercialization is in progress. In a recent joint venture, NASA sent storage bags to the International Space Station. These bags are designed to store laptop batteries, limiting any fires in case they fail. And in May, a licensing agreement was reached for a major shipping provider to use this NASA technology expressly for shipping old, damaged, or returned batteries. That’s a first step in getting them in the approval process for major shipping companies.
Will safe shipping for old batteries trigger major investments in battery recapture and recycling? Maybe. Perhaps even probably. There are simply too many devices – medical equipment, electric cars, marine gear, cell phones – to think that we’re going to rely only on new batteries and battery material forever. Getting our old batteries from one place to another – out of our homes and into major reuse pathways – is the biggest step to making that happen.
Michael Mo is the CEO of KULR Technology, (OTC: KULR) which is a development partner with NASA and other space and defense companies. KULR’s proprietary, space-used carbon architecture is the core of their thermal management products for energy storage and high-value electronic components.
KULR Technology | kulrtechnology.com