Better battery recycling is still no match for batteryless IoT
The IoT world is evolving at a breakneck pace and it is literally taking the world by storm. Today, the Internet of Things is making its transformative presence felt in nearly every aspect of human life, radically changing the way we approach business, communication, personal care and everyday life. In this climate of rapid innovation, there is a huge pressure on the IoT industry to come up with more sustainable and eco-friendly power solutions.
Traditionally, IoT devices have been battery-powered. Until very recently, there was simply no other viable alternative - batteries were simply the best we had. However, in recent years, energy harvesting technology has emerged as a contender that is simply hard to look past. Ambient energy harvesting has allowed us to conceive of an IoT that is 100% batteryless - i.e self-powered.
For the uninitiated, here’s a brief introduction to how energy harvesting technology works - basically, we are surrounded by an invisible ocean of energy at all times. There are swirling cascades of energy in the form of electromagnetic waves, heat, vibrations etc that are simply going unused. Energy harvesting technology essentially refers to the process of harnessing some of this ambient energy and converting it into usable electrical energy that can power small devices.
In many instances in the past, we have highlighted the urgent need for IoT devices to switch to batteryless technology, powered by energy harvesting. Some of the key points which we have always highlighted are the humanitarian and environmental perils associated with Li-ion batteries and the economic costs associated with deploying a large number of battery-powered IoT sensors and node devices.
After all, we can only discard so many billions of batteries into our oceans before the consequences turn truly disastrous for us. In this context, we have always maintained that batteryless IoT is a truly revolutionary step in the right direction. In many of our previous posts, we’ve extolled the transformative potential of batteryless IoT and spoken about how it could potentially be a flag-bearer for a future where we find more elegant solutions to some of the most pressing existential challenges that confront us today.
Is this narrative just a ploy to make energy harvesting technology look good or does it actually hold water? Don’t recent advancements in recycling technologies mean that the transformative potential of batteryless IoT that we so often speak about is just hogwash?
We thought we might play devil’s advocate and address this question with this post.
After all, there is no better way to illustrate a technology’s merit than being its fiercest critic and seeing if it holds up to rigorous scrutiny.
Advancements in Battery Recycling
The biggest argument that can be laid out against the transformative power of batteryless IoT is that there have been a spate of recent advancements in Lithium-ion battery recycling. This is in no small part due to the explosion in demand for these batteries, thanks to the rise of EVs and battery-powered consumer electronics.
Mainly, these advancements are directed towards improving the efficiency, sustainability and cost-effectiveness of recycling batteries. Today, we are able to recover valuable minerals like lithium, cobalt and nickel much more effectively from dead batteries. In recent years, techniques such as direct recycling have risen in popularity. In layman terms, what this means is that we are able to increase the rate at which we recover these precious substances from recycled batteries.
The environmental impact associated with battery recycling is also being chipped away at - modern recycling techniques come with a smaller carbon footprint and are claimed to release fewer toxic by-products into the environment. Moreover, with a rise in supportive legislation and government policies around the world, there are fewer obstacles to effective battery recycling than there were a few years ago. This also means that we are able to recycle batteries more cheaply.
As we speak, there is ongoing research underway on improving existing recycling modalities. Make no mistake - we will have better recycling techniques in our hands in the coming years. It’s also difficult to argue against the notion that increasing awareness levels and better education will lead to higher recycling rates, which will in turn drive more innovation within the industry.
But, does any of this take away from the transformative potential of batteryless technology?
The Case for Batteryless IoT
Advancements in recycling techniques are a welcome development, no doubt. But, we think it’s not enough, on its own, to discredit the sheer revolutionary potential of batteryless IoT technology.
Firstly, there is the problem of uniformity. It is true that recent advancements in recycling technologies are making rapid strides in salvaging lithium and cobalt from batteries but most of these methods are aimed at processing uniform, large-scale batteries that are used in large industrial sectors such as automobiles, manufacturing and a small segment of consumer electronics. These recycling processes are not able to deliver the goods when it comes to the other end of the spectrum, i.e. smaller, AA-sized batteries and coin cells which face greater recycling challenges. These batteries are made from a more diverse mix of materials and are not compatible with a uniform recycling stream. There is also the dreadful challenge of collecting these smaller batteries for recycling - something we haven’t been able to come up with a tenable solution for. It requires large-scale public participation, incentive programs and stringent government regulation - even when all this is assumed, it is a tall order by any stretch of the imagination. After all, we humans have never really made a good case for ourselves when it comes to acting diligently and conscientiously without supervision. This makes collecting small batteries for recycling almost an impossibility, practically speaking.
Then, there is the carbon footprint associated with recycling - recycling lithium-ion batteries is extremely energy-intensive. This is because extremely high temperatures are required to smelt the batteries in order to recover the materials. This energy often comes from non-renewable sources, contributing significantly to the total carbon footprint. Even accounting for the improvements made in this regard, there is still a lot of uncertainty on the cumulative ecological value of recycling old batteries, especially when held in comparison with batteryless technology. It’s very unclear whether the carbon footprint of recycling older batteries is actually lower than that of manufacturing new batteries - and that’s not an uncertainty that can be glazed over.
Moreover, there are the knock-on effects that come with recycling batteries - battery recycling involves a lot of steps which are potentially hazardous to the environment. Many toxic chemicals are involved in these processes, which can pose huge threats to the environment if not handled properly. In many cases, these chemicals leak into their surroundings and cause water and soil contamination. This can have hugely adverse effects on the local ecology and perhaps more pertinently, on human health. Additionally, recycling processes themselves are quite resource intensive - for example, they require huge amounts of water among other resources, which can tilt the overall ecological equation significantly. Add to that the other factors that often go unmentioned - like the carbon footprint associated with transporting used batteries to recycling facilities etc and you’ll end up with a completely different picture.
While it is true that we are able to salvage a higher proportion of rare earth minerals like lithium and cobalt with modern recycling practices, a large quantity still goes to waste. This is a huge point in the favour of batteryless technology - as such, we are in a situation where lithium and cobalt reserves are fast dwindling. We will not be able to sustain continued mining of these minerals for much longer. We need to understand that lithium and cobalt are very scarce resources and even with the best recycling practices we have today, supply is not going to be able to keep up with demand in the near future.
Taking all this into consideration, the argument that better recycling techniques can render battery-powered IoT just as eco-friendly as batteryless IoT is simply not tenable.
The Undeniable Benefits of Batteryless IoT
The Future of IoT is Batteryless
Iterative improvements are not going to help us overcome the litany of existential threats we are faced with today, as a species. Our oceans are getting polluted at a truly terrifying rate - our soil is dying and we are losing thousands of species every year. What we need is a dramatic transformation in the way we do things and structure our practices.
In this light, batteryless IoT is definitely a step in the right direction. Batteries were a necessary step in our evolution towards sustainable energy - no doubt - but, they are just that - a step. We need to move past batteries and embrace the next evolutionary step. What we’ve tried to highlight with this piece is just how many issues there are with batteries as a power source. Some of these issues can be worked at and improved upon but the fact still remains that batteries are incredibly wasteful, resource-intensive and expensive, both in terms of material and detriment to life.
We’re not suggesting that the Internet of Things going batteryless is going to dramatically solve all our ecological problems - not at all. But it is a question of whether we are going to embrace radical, transformative solutions or persist with futile attempts to make iterative changes to the grossly unsustainable and insensible way we’ve structured a lot of our systems today.
It is clear as daylight that we need more solutions and fast! We are not going to overcome these seemingly impossible challenges with the sort of thinking that got us here in the first place - we need solutions that dare to reimagine the wheel. Batteryless IoT is that kind of a solution.