Charge It!


At Christmas time, the imperative phrase “charge it!” can mean one of two things: either buying a gift on credit, or making sure a battery powered gift is ready to go once the recipient unwraps it. Buying on credit has never been the best idea and can be a sign of financial distress, while using batteries to power toys and electronic devices of all sorts has gotten better over the years, with battery technology currently poised for another great leap forward.

The Flintstones Bedrock City IMG 0132
Flintstones Bedrock City in Williams, Arizona, in September 2018. Photo by Don McCulley. That appears to be a stripped down version of the Flintstones’ human – or cartoon character – powered vehicle under the sign.


The need for batteries on Christmas morning made itself known in earnest after World War II, when the first battery powered toys arrived on the market. Those batteries were not rechargeable and lasted only a few hours at most before depleting and then becoming trash. No recharging, no recycling. The batteries themselves might have been relatively inexpensive, but replacing them time and again was not.

Now batteries are mostly rechargeable and mostly recyclable, and more importantly they have become vital to powering far more devices than toys, from communication devices almost everyone uses throughout each day of their lives to personal transportation that is moving toward similar ubiquity. And batteries play a big part in storing electricity generated by renewable sources such as wind and solar, and that electricity can in turn be used to recharge the batteries people use every day.

A cartoonish look at the works of an electric car. Illustration by Welleman.

All that burgeoning interest has attracted research and development dollars, the incentive being the production of batteries that run longer on a charge, are made of less toxic materials, are cheaper for consumers, and are lighter in weight and in environmental footprint. The race is on, and with many more things in everyone’s daily lives being powered by batteries than there were 70 years ago, the stakes are bigger than simply making toy cars go faster on Christmas morning.
— Techly


Saving Up for a Rainy Day


Battery storage has long presented a conundrum to renewable energy enthusiasts who tout the relatively benign environmental footprints of wind and solar power. The batteries can contain toxic metals and chemicals which cause environmental damage in mining and formulation, and then again when they have exhausted their usefulness and users need to somehow safely recycle or dispose of them.

Partial Eclipse of the Sun - Montericco, Albinea, Reggio Emilia, Italy - May 1994 03
Partial eclipse of the sun – Montericco, Albinea, Reggio Emilia, Italy – May 1994. Photo by Giorgio Galeotti.


For a time, it seemed the answer for homeowners using a solar array was to sell excess power produced during the day to the power company and then draw on grid power at night and on cloudy days. These grid-tied systems effectively used the power company as storage, mostly dispensing with the need for a bank of batteries at home. Unfortunately for homeowners with grid-tied systems, it appears power companies are backing away from those setups in order to protect their equipment and to maintain tighter control over power generation.

Power companies have been investing in their own renewable energy production as costs go down. Since there is no external backup for the electricity generated by the power company, the power companies need to employ huge amounts of batteries. Batteries have improved in the past generation both in toxicity and length of usable life from the days of lead acid batteries. Improvement does not mean they are exactly environmentally friendly. The problem comes down to relative harm, such as whether it is less harmful to the environment to drive an electric car when the source for its electricity is a coal burning power plant.

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An illustration of the relationship of renewable energy to energy storage from the German cartoonist Gerhard Mester (1956-). Panel 1: “More solar energy!!” Panel 2: “More wind energy!” And in the last panel: “More energy storage!” Incidentally, Germany is a world leader in solar energy production despite receiving less sunlight than many other industrialized nations.

Nothing people do technologically has zero impact on the environment, and arguments from the extremes of both sides of the tug of war between those in favor of continued use of fossil fuels and those who want greater reliance on renewable energy are neither accurate nor helpful. Continuing the status quo of burning fossil fuels for most energy production is clearly a path to environmental catastrophe, while renewable energy production does not have quite as low an impact on the environment as some enthusiasts suggest. It is in the batteries especially that renewable energy has an unfavorable impact.

Nevertheless, in countries with higher renewable energy production than the global average the air is cleaner and greenhouse gas emissions are lower. Because the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, the key to minimizing reliance on batteries, the most toxic element in renewable energy use, is diversification of power sources supplying the grid, from geothermal to hydroelectric. None of these methods of supplying the power necessary for humanity’s modern lifestyle are perfect, but they are all better than the alternative of continuing down the path of polluting the air and warming the planet. The two biggest obstacles to switching the United States to 100 percent renewable energy are the fossil fuel industry interests entrenched in national politics, and battery technology. Of the two, the latter will be more easily overcome by a concerted effort, and with time the new technology will push out the former technology and its moneyed adherents as obsolete and destructive. But will it be soon enough?
— Techly


Fired Up and Ready to Go


Samsung recalled their new Galaxy Note 7 smartphones last year after some of their lithium ion batteries overheated and either caught fire or swelled and caused other damage. The amount of batteries having problems was quite small in proportion to the amount manufactured, but once the reports got out, the resulting bad publicity constituted a fire of its own that Samsung needed to extinguish. Lithium ion batteries overheating and causing damage or dangerous fires is nothing new, and the problem is not limited to the batteries in Samsung smartphones or particularly in the Galaxy Note 7. What is relatively new are the quick charging and wireless charging features of some newer smartphones, including the Galaxy Note 7.


2011 SEMC BA750 back
Back of lithium ion battery,
showing safety warnings;
photo by Solomon203.


As batteries go, lithium ion types are particularly volatile and susceptible to malfunction from mishandling or careless manufacturing. That has been the trade-off for batteries that are lightweight, relatively energy dense, and capable of going through hundreds or even thousands of charging cycles without suffering from the memory defects of previous compact battery types like nickel cadmium. Consumer demand is for long battery life combined with quick charging, in a phone that is slim and light, and in the past few years cell phone manufacturers have responded by including quick charging and wireless charging features, while maintaining or even increasing battery capacity.


Wireless charging, while it has many benefits such as the capability of being a universal method of charging that eliminates dependence on proprietary wired chargers, is relatively inefficient and therefore loses more power to heat than wired chargers. Heat is bad for batteries, particularly lithium ion types. Quick charging technology that can add a 50% charge to a phone’s battery in 15 minutes requires strict attention to software design in both the charger and the phone to monitor the process, lest it cause overheating. Think of how it is possible for a NASCAR pit crew to dump over 20 gallons of fuel into a race car in less than 10 seconds using only gravity and special attention to venting, and do it safely, and then think of how complex the monitoring system must be for quickly charging a smartphone battery – which includes a flammable electrolyte – when you consider that charging introduces electricity into an essentially chemical process. It’s a wonder the proportion of failures isn’t higher than it is.


It turns out the defect in the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 was largely a design error of squeezing too large a battery into the phone. Or the compartment in the phone was too small for the battery. Either way, because of the tight fit the positive and negative plates within the battery got closer to each other than they should, overwhelming the separators meant to keep them apart, and causing some of the batteries to overheat to a disastrous degree. No doubt Samsung’s corporate culture is to blame for this, because unlike other manufacturers they test their batteries in house, and in this case they were rushing to compete with Apple’s impending release of the iPhone 7. The design error was either overlooked in the rush or considered not serious enough to warrant a redesign delay that might keep Samsung from beating out their chief competitor in the smartphone market, Apple. Whatever the issue was, this time Samsung’s attempt to get a jump on Apple backfired.
― Techly

Alessandro Volta’s battery on display
at the Tempio Voltiano Museum
in Como, Italy; photo by GuidoB.