Batteries can have various safety and environmental concerns

Lithium-ion batteries are not the perfect solution to electrification. Photo: Shutterstock
Lithium-ion batteries are not the perfect solution to electrification. Photo: Shutterstock

Electric cars are actually an older invention than those with internal combustion engines. The first full-size prototypes were around in the 1830s, beating the petrol car by about 50 years.

Electric vehicles have several potential advantages over internal combustion, however the one thing that has held electric cars back all this time is the battery.

An electrical battery, by definition, is a collection of one or more cells providing an electrochemical reaction to produce electricity. The fundamental parts that make a battery have not changed since Italian physicist and chemist Alessandro Volta invented the voltaic pile, and this work was first published in 1799.

These parts of a battery are the positive electrode, the negative electrode, and an electrolyte between them to facilitate the electrochemical reaction. Volta's electric pile can be recreated with copper (the positive electrode), zinc (the negative electrode), and a piece of brine-soaked (salt water) cloth between them (the electrolyte). If each of these layers is a thin disc and stacked in a pattern of copper, brine, zinc, copper, brine, zinc, repeat, you get a voltaic pile.

Some combinations of materials, like the voltaic pile, result in a battery that is single-use only. Other combinations of materials can have the electrochemical reaction reversed quite a number of times, thereby making the battery rechargeable.

The lead-acid battery - which powered the first production electric cars in the late 19th century and still provides the electric start for today's combustion engines - was invented in 1859 by French physicist Gaston Planté, and improved by Camille Alphonse Faure, another French scientist, in 1881. Most significantly, it was the first battery to be rechargeable.

Since then, new combinations of materials continue to be thought up and tested by researchers in the field, and some of them are deemed not just very capable but also economically viable to produce, but every combination of materials seems to have its drawbacks.

Some combinations use materials that are just too expensive. Some combinations are more dangerous than others.

Some combinations require the mining of materials, the environmental consequences of which seem to defeat the purpose of using batteries. We should also remain mindful of the issue of where the electricity comes from to recharge them (fossil, nuclear or renewables), and there is also the issue of recycling them at the end of their useful life.

Therefore, just as there is a right way and very wrong ways to produce biofuels, and a right way and very wrong ways to produce hydrogen (another option for producing electrical power), there are also various ways in which we already get battery production (and usage) very wrong.

As an example, research fellow Dr Mahdokht Shaibani from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Faculty of Engineering at Monash University says that lower-carbon batteries are essential if batteries are to be part of our response to climate change.

"Rechargeable batteries to store the energy of renewables, and electrify our transportation, promise to be a critical step in fighting climate change," Dr Shaibani said.

Currently, lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are commonly used in electric vehicles, portable devices and more. The electrolyte is flammable though, and so it's prone to fire if ruptured, which is an obvious safety concern.

Additionally, "not many people are aware of the rising environmental concerns around the production of lithium-ion batteries, a mineral intensive battery technology. Li-ion batteries are made up of lithium, along with emissions-intensive minerals like nickel, cobalt, and graphite. These concerns need to be addressed urgently," Dr Shaibani said.

As for an environmental solution, "climate-responsible mining, waste prevention of used batteries, and a move towards greener battery chemistries will help with accelerating the electrification of our world, while ensuring the battery production is managed in a way that minimises the environmental and climate footprint."

This story Batteries have some safety and climate concerns to address first appeared on The Canberra Times.