While electric vehicles are often lauded for being zero-emission alternatives to gas-powered cars, the lithium-ion batteries used to power them (as well as our iPhones and other rechargeable devices) contain heavy metals that present significant environmental and humanitarian hazards. So, in pursuit of reducing the impact of rechargeable electronics, tech company IBM has discovered a new, potentially safer battery. IBM believes the battery could "transform the long-term sustainability of many elements of our energy infrastructure."
As explained in a blog post on IBM's website, researchers in IBM Research’s Battery Lab discovered the new battery by using three proprietary materials that have never been combined to create a battery before. The materials were extracted from seawater, which means they are non-toxic and do not involve mining.
IBM Researchers have discovered a new battery design built without heavy metals. This means we could alleviate certain environmental concerns hovering above today's battery options.— IBM Research (@IBMResearch) December 18, 2019
Learn more about this discovery: https://t.co/uKuITL2cmt pic.twitter.com/LIFCRheqly
Currently, a lot of the materials needed to make batteries must be mined, such as the heavy metals nickel and cobalt. The cobalt mining industry is quite controversial — as noted in a harrowing piece by The Guardian, at least 60 percent of the world's cobalt is mined in Central Africa, specifically in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Guardian reporter Siddharth Kara visited and "documented the horrors" of 31 mining sites in the area, which left him describing cobalt as being "smeared in misery and blood." Child laborers work for pennies a day to mine cobalt for our fancy electronics — a business model that is by no means sustainable.
On top of that, the toxic chemicals used to process lithium for batteries pose a variety of environmental threats. “The release of such chemicals through leaching, spills or air emissions can harm communities, ecosystems and food production," reads a report by Friends of the Earth Europe, as reported by NS Energy. “Moreover, lithium extraction inevitably harms the soil and also causes air contamination.”
Not only are lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars, but they're also used to power pretty much every rechargeable electronic item you own — your cell phone, laptop, iPad, and electric car all contain lithium-ion batteries, which all contain cobalt, which likely came from the conditions described in Congo.
Taking all of that into account, IBM's breakthrough is certainly a positive step for the planet. Plus, based on initial tests, IBM believes the new battery could actually outperform traditional lithium-ion batteries across the board. The battery's cathode material is completely free of cobalt and nickel, and it also includes a safe liquid electrolyte with a high flash point — and that combination of cathode and electrolyte actually helps reduce flammability. Additionally, IBM asserts that compared to lithium-ion batteries, the new, energy efficient battery is less expensive, charges faster, and has a higher power and energy density.
IBM says the battery is still in the "early stage exploratory research" phase — but to help speed things up towards mass-production of this new battery, the company has partnered with Mercedes-Benz's Research and Development division, as well as battery supplier Central Glass and battery manufacturer Sidus. Even though it could be a while before this battery hits the market, innovations like these really do hold the potential to change the world.