Charging Ahead

Charging Ahead

World Changers Logo 1200px v2Rechargeable batteries are about to get more powerful and safer—courtesy of Mother Nature.

Where would we be without the rechargeable battery? Invented in 1859 in a very crude form by French physicist Gaston Planté—about 30 years after the first electricity generator, four decades before the launch of the electrical grid in the U.S., and nearly 90 years before the standard, finger-sized cylindrical battery of today—rechargeables are now indispensable. 

Imagine not having them available when using typical conveniences such as smartphones, laptops, cameras, battery-driven power tools, portable razors, or even electric cars. 


For more than 150 years, rechargeable batteries have been a convenient source of energy for numerous devices. They are expected to become even more indispensable as public demand increases and they become more powerful and safer. Credit: Clemson University Department of Physics and Astronomy

It’s a necessity that people are embracing in growing numbers. The global rechargeable battery market is expected to grow from $110 billion in 2022 to $196 billion by 2032, according to a report by Precedence Research. 

Advancements in charging capacity, longevity, greater research interest by world governments—particularly China, India and the United States (in that order)—and a growing demand for clean energy are expected to drive the market even further, Precedence Research notes.

“The market for rechargeable batteries has been growing rapidly due to the increasing demand for portable electronic devices and the need for sustainable energy storage solutions,” the report notes. “The use of rechargeable batteries also helps to reduce waste and the environmental impact of disposable batteries.”

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Lithium-ion batteries can catch fire or explode, posing a safety hazard. A new, self-extinguishing type can eliminate that threat. Credit: iStock/weerapatkiatdumrong

Dealing With Drawbacks

Rechargeable batteries, especially the most common variety, lithium-ion (Li-ion), have their drawbacks. They’re more expensive (at least initially), they require rare and valuable materials such as lithium, cobalt, and nickel to produce, and they are harder to dispose of once they finally burn out after hundreds, if not thousands of charges. And as they age, rechargeables can become weak and unpredictable, and extremely dangerous.

According to a report in New Atlas, the lithium battery has been an enormous leap forward. But “when they drop their guts, they can do so in absolutely spectacular destructive fashion.”

The culprit is thermal runway, a situation where the electrical current flowing through the battery cell on charge or overcharge causes the cell temperature to rise, which increases the current with a further rise in temperature. The battery ultimately leaks, and its primary component, electrolyte fluid, can spontaneously combust. 

Li-ion-related fires are rare. Nationwide, there have been 445 lithium-ion battery fires, 214 injuries and 38 deaths since 2022, according to UL Solutions. About half of the fires were in New York City.

Researchers from Clemson University in South Carolina and Hunan University in China hope to make those totals even smaller. The combined team has created a new type of rechargeable—and non-flammable—potassium-ion battery using components found in a basic fire extinguisher: 3M’s Novec 7300 non-flammable heat transfer fluid, and a refrigerant, Daikin-T5216.

“We wanted to develop an electrolyte that was nonflammable, would readily transfer heat away from the battery pack, could function over a wide temperature range, was very durable, and would be compatible with any battery chemistry,” explains Apparao Rao, a Clemson physics professor and the project’s lead researcher. “However, most known nonflammable organic solvents contain fluorine and phosphorus, which are expensive and can have harmful effects on the environment.”

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Clemson University physics professor Apparao Rao, right, is part of the research team that has developed a rechargeable battery that can extinguish itself if a fire occurs. Credit: Clemson University Department of Physics and Astronomy

Combining Novec 7300, Daikin-T5216, and several other chemicals resulted in an electrolyte that enables a battery to charge and discharge over a full year without losing significant capacity. More importantly, the electrolyte adjusts a battery’s internal heat during a fire that effectively extinguishes it. 

The technology should be compatible with standard Li-ions, Rao notes. It is cheaper to make due to the greater availability of its primary element, potassium. Its reduced-flammability also gives it the potential to provide backup for stationary energy storage, such as the power grid. 

Goodbye to Graphite

The growing popularity of Li-ion rechargeable batteries poses an environmental problem: scarcity of its primary product, graphite. This is especially problematic for electric vehicles (EVs), sales of which have increased by 25 percent annually in 2022 and 2023, bringing the overall total to 40 million worldwide, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA)’s Global EV Outlook

Combine that sales pace with the fact that graphite makes up 54 percent of mineral demand in a Li-ion battery, and you have a serious problem, according to Otto Kivi, senior battery materials business development specialist at Finland-based renewable products manufacturer Stora Enso

The company’s flagship battery product, Lignode, replaces Li-ion graphite with lignin, a by-product in the production of cellulose fiber and the world’s largest renewable source of carbon, according to Kivi. 

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Lignin from pine and spruce trees provides a renewable alternative to graphite-dependent batteries. It is refined into a fine carbon powder, which is then pressed into electrode sheets for use in new rechargeables. Credit: Courtesy Stora Enso

Stora Enso used to simply burn the waste material for heat and energy; now it takes lignin from pine and spruce trees and refines it into a fine carbon powder, which is then pressed into electrode sheets. Lignin-based carbon can be used in batteries—especially those for consumer electronics and the automotive industry—and in large-scale energy storage systems.

“For the automotive industry, investing in this fossil-free and renewable alternative could mean a significant marketing advantage and a feasible answer to new environmental policies driven by climate change and the need for green energy,” Kivi notes.

The firm is partnering with Swedish company Northvolt and plans to begin manufacturing batteries with Lignode as early as 2025, Stora Enso notes.

Natural Selection

Not to be ignored, Tokyo-based PJP Eye LTD has its own alternative rechargeable battery with homegrown roots—almost literally. The company’s Power Bank battery and its Cambrian technology is marketed as a way to solve the biggest negative to Li-ion batteries: They’re not environmentally friendly.

Instead of rare earth metals like cobalt, nickel, manganese and graphite, Power Bank uses organic material, such as cotton, sugar cane and olive oil, and combines it with “more-abundant metals”—the company won’t say which ones because it’s a “secret recipe”—in the battery’s respective negative and positive electrodes. 

The result, a single-carbon battery, is a portable unit that charges eight times faster than conventional batteries, retains 84 percent of its charging capability after 8,000 cycles (about double the number vs. a basic Li-ion), and has no risk of bursting or exploding, even if it is overcharged, overheated, or short-circuited, according to the company.