Have a look at the gadgets you have within reach right now.
Your cell, your laptop, your tablet, a backup power source – they all have one thing in common. They are powered using a lithium-ion battery, and for good reason.
These batteries offer high energy density and high voltage, meaning they can power increasingly sophisticated electronics. They last a long time. And they are relatively environmentally friendly, containing no polluting metals, such as cadmium, lead or mercury.
Mini explosion scandals aside, lithium-ion batteries continue to be the technology of choice for all the major consumer gadget players, including Apple, Samsung and Lenovo. So it is no wonder the market is set to explode in the next few years. Rapid growth in consumer electronics, as well as greater use in powering electric cars and making the most of energy storage systems, such as household solar units, will see the global market jump from almost $30 billion in 2015 to more than $77 billion by 2024.
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But as lithium-ion supersedes ubiquitously used acid lead batteries, what happens when each battery reaches the end of its life? According to Amrit Chandan, co-founder of Aceleron – a startup that hopes to revolutionise the way people use and think about low-cost energy storage – lithium-ion battery recycling is currently not economically viable given the complexities of recovering the lithium dust from battery packs.
“Lithium has a low market value, so the recycling process usually involves smelting the batteries, with only 10 to 30 percent of the lithium being recovered,” he says.
Huge resources are going to waste, too, with perceived ‘dead’ lithium-ion batteries discarded rather than being repurposed for something else. This is where Aceleron’s technology comes into play.
“A battery pack is generally made up of a number of battery cells and often it is only one of those that has run dead or is no longer fit for purpose – but it drags down the rest,” Chandan says.
Aceleron – dreamt up by Chandan and his partner and co-founder Carlton Cummins during their lunch breaks working for a management consultancy – can efficiently test which ones are good and which ones are not so good, taking the good ones and packaging them in a way that is safe, cost effective and useful again.
“We’re finding that the batteries we are processing have upwards of 70 percent of their state of health remaining, which is such a valuable resource being sent for recycling that does not need to be.”
With just five lithium-ion battery recycling facilities in Europe, companies are reluctant to ship them to be dealt with; and being classed as ‘hazardous’ material makes it that much more expensive. According to Chandan, a strategy for at least one of the big carmakers for dealing with old battery waste is just to store them in big containers.
So, Aceleron’s objective is to find a solid replacement for the traditional 12-volt lead acid battery. In Kenya, up to 11 million lead acid batteries are currently being used in an informal way – taken from old cars and then used once or twice and thrown away. And because there is no regulation in place there, such batteries are often smelted on open-air furnaces. In fact, World Health Organisation statistics suggest 25 percent of deaths in developing regions come from industrial gases, including lead poisoning, from lead batteries being burned.
“We’ve developed a battery pack which has all of the benefits of lithium ion – with its better weight and performance characteristics – but is at the same price as a lead acid battery,” Chandan adds.
So far, the company’s technology is being piloted for use in powering e-bikes in London as well as a large-scale electronics source for laptop charging (“a bit like a phone charger on steroids, the size of a coffee cup with an AC plug socket”).
But it is in the developing world that Chandan thinks his business can make the biggest difference: “We want to create a copy-and-paste blueprint for what we are doing in the UK and allow others to use it in different regions of the world.
“By encouraging others to follow our lead and create local battery processing operations, we will promote tech entrepreneurship, too – helping people to help themselves.”