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Battery Hazards

Are we overcharging our future?
01/06/2023

Although batteries play a key role in energy transition, they can also cause hazards. For example, if you overcharge batteries, it may not only shorten their lifespan, but also pose health and safety risks. Batteries can emit toxic gasses and even explode when overcharged. Therefore, researchers have tried to develop technologies such as circuit protection to prevent batteries from being overcharged.

However, what if we are overcharging our future while powering our society by batteries? If this is true, a further question could be framed within the narrative of responsible innovation, “to what extent has (or has not) the value of sustainability been embedded into battery technologies?”

Here, battery technologies refer to a sociotechnical system involving interdependent technical elements (e.g., chemical machinery, battery products) and social elements (e.g., authorities, policies), since batteries are always combined with other stuff, from electronic devices to power systems.

I will mainly take a look at the value of sustainability in battery technologies, from environmental and social perspectives, by simply conceptualizing sustainability as our ability to persistently maintain a harmonious relation with nature and other human beings. 

 

Environmental Sustainability as a changing value

More than twenty years ago, the influx of toxic battery materials was a primary cause for concern, which led to the “establishment of maximum allowable concentrations in drinking water and in the air in working environments” (Levy and Bro 1994).

After the debut of lithium batteries, scientists believed these batteries would be promising because they were powerful, yet lightweight and environmentally safe (Marriott 1998). Tech companies also promoted the fairy tale of lithium batteries, claiming that they “had none of the environmental problems of the most commonly used rechargeable batteries” (Holusha 1994).

The story is not over, however. As the production of lithium batteries continued to increase, the “second life” and “afterlife” of those batteries came under the spotlight. If today you look up the recycling rate for lead-acid batteries, you will find it has almost reached 100 %.

Unfortunately, lithium batteries are much harder to recycle, because their compositions are widely varied and no financially sound process is available. Besides, recycling brings about new issues regarding environmental sustainability, such as air pollutants, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

Moreover, the production of lithium batteries may not be environmentally sustainable enough. The demands for lithium, graphite, cobalt and nickel are growing fast due to the expanding market, putting a strain on the supply chain. Additionally, the evaporation processes in mining lithium consume large amounts of water, which has triggered a water crisis.

The interpretation of environmental sustainability has gradually shifted from “elimination of toxic components” to “conservation of land, freshwater and air throughout the life cycle of batteries”, imposing requirements for each phase in the life cycle. As a result, lithium batteries still cannot fully embody the value of environmental sustainability, based on its new interpretation.

 

Hidden (soft) impacts of batteries

While the battery technologies are confronted with the challenge of value change, they can also raise new issues. According to Peter-Paul Verbeek (2015), the influences of technologies can be characterized according to two dimensions: visibility and force. With regard to visibility, while the environmental impacts of batteries are now often questioned, their hidden social impacts are less discussed.

However, as an integral part of energy storage systems, batteries have contributed to our social development by powering artifacts, ranging from smartphones to energy grids. It is necessary to go over the hidden impacts in historical and social contexts if we want to explore the full influence of batteries.

A case in point could be the relationship between battery technologies and a throwaway culture (Turner 2022). Imagine if you have been accompanied by your lovely laptop for four years, but you feel the design of the laptop has become too obsolete to serve you. Your dissatisfaction has started mounting.

Even worse, after experiencing the frustration of your old laptop grinding slowly, you have come across a fancy new model, which really hits your spot. And one day, when the battery of your old laptop finally breaks down and the maintenance will cost a lot, how can you resist the temptation to head towards the store and buy a brand-new laptop without hesitation?

In this case, technology has shaped how we prioritise values. It seduces us to prioritise the values of efficiency, aesthetic experience and novelty, over sustainability and other values.  The design of battery technology does not force us to throw our laptops away. But when battery technology is viewed as a sociotechnical system, integrating with other social and technical elements – such as the cost-effectiveness of maintenance services, the availability of repair shops and the developments in the design of laptops – it will somehow exert a seductive influence on us.

These ethical implications within our throwaway culture even affect our lives in other ways, such as the way we perceive our friendships and love relationships. As goes a meme on Chinese social media, “It is no big deal to say ‘Bye’, a better one will say ‘Hi’”.

Apparently, current battery technologies still cannot stop us from exploiting nature. Considering the social impacts of battery technologies, one may wonder whether we, with the “help” of these technologies, are also compromising a prosperous and just future for our society, by handicapping our contemporaries.

The answer to the question remains unclear. On the one hand, it can be at odds with our pursuit of justice. When we are depleting the natural resources in the Andes to extract lithium, making the residents suffer from droughts and air contamination; when the prices of lithium batteries are still relatively high, discouraging the poor from buying green products like electric vehicles, we are actually sacrificing the future of some groups to satisfy others.

Integrated in small-scale decentralized energy systems, lithium batteries, on the other hand, could also help us alleviate poverty and enhance equity. To maintain the stability of power systems, we could integrate large lithium batteries into the grid, helping to store clean energy for the grid and satisfy peak energy demand, thereby avoiding outage and even bringing down the energy costs.

Despite the lack of a definitive answer, we have to admit that battery technologies facilitate us to sacrifice our planet and even ask some of us to bear the entire cost for a sustainable future.

 

Responding to battery hazards caused by overcharging

The question, then, is whether we can do anything about this gloomy situation. In the light of the discussion above, battery technologies can assist in new challenges in our morality which may result in moral changes, but they can also help us seek possible solutions to uphold social values.

In this sense, I argue that there should be a co-evolution of technology and morality. No technology is perfect. Battery technologies are no exception. Because of the co-evolutionary relationship between technology and morality, our ethical assessment must never end.

Again, batteries seldom stand alone in our daily lives, and their significance always emerges when they work with other devices. Therefore, while it is crucial to continuously examine the ethical issues in battery design, it is equally important to scrutinize the design of other components – especially the institutional parts — in this socio-technical system.

The redesign of relevant institutions may be even more promising because they can be more flexible than technologies. That is, when technologies themselves cannot keep up with our ever-growing demands, we may need help from the institutional side.

 

References

[1] Levy, S. C., and Bro, P. (1994). Battery hazards and accident prevention. Springer Science & Business Media.

[2] Marriott, M. (1998). As the battery goes, so goes the…The New York Times.

[3] Holusha, J. (1994). New battery by Bellcore uses lithium. The New York Times.

[4] Van de Poel, I. (2021). Design for value change. Ethics and Information Technology, 23(1), 27-31.

[5] Verbeek, P. P. (2015). Beyond interaction: a short introduction to mediation theory. interactions, 22(3), 26-31.

[6] Turner, J. M. (2022). Charged: A History of Batteries and Lessons for a Clean Energy Future. University of Washington Press.