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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Without batteries, life itself would be impossible

Perhaps you remember the tagline "Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible" from Monsanto ads. The campaign started in 1978 when the chemical industry was deservedly criticized for pollution. Over the years people have appropriated the tagline in many ways, and today I'm referring to batteries.

Around age 10 I got a transistor radio... AM, of course. I also had a flashlight and various battery-powered toys. A good portion of my allowance -- a quarter a week, at that time -- went towards batteries. I should have realized that it was a growth business. When my sons reached that age, the batteries in highest demand had changed from 9 volt and D-cell to AA and AAA types. Surely we bought hundreds of them for Discmans, Game Boys, and the like.

One might think that battery research and development is a boring field, but it turns out to be a major factor in our economy. These days, without chemicals such as lithium polymers and nickel metal hydride, technology would be stuck in neutral. Batteries are at the center of laptops, smartphones, hybrid automobiles, hearing aids, cardiac pacemakers, and many other devices that are or will become essential to our lifestyles if not our lives. When you travel, how many power cables, adapters, or chargers do you bring? On a massive scale, batteries that use different chemistry may reconcile supply and demand for electricity at solar and wind power sites. This reconciliation is key to using natural energy sources that fluctuate, compared to existing sources of energy (lakes, fossil fuels, or nuclear) that can be turned up and down at will.

The flip side is that batteries, like Monsanto products, are pollutants. Mercury was eliminated from consumer batteries in the 1990s, and nickel-cadmium batteries have largely been superceded. Nevertheless, the mining and refining of metals that go into batteries and the disposal of batteries must be managed for environmental hazards. And that's not all: some battery technologies, notably lithium, are fire and safety hazards as well. The more energy we stuff into a fixed volume, the greater the risk -- a basic law of physics. Be careful with these things.

Did you know that the AAA battery was originally developed to power the flash of a Kodak camera introduced in the 1950s? Kodak film cameras are long gone, and the future of Kodak itself is in doubt. As I look around the room where I write these blogs, however, AAA-powered devices are everywhere -- even inside this wireless keyboard.