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Common Rechargeable Battery Types and Their Effects on the Environment

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How many of our green technologies rely on rechargeable batteries for power? We have electric cars, solar and wind energy systems, and other eco-friendly gadgets and devices. The level of safety to the environment of these products is often praised highly, with an emphasis of comparing them to their dirtier counterparts.

But even if they do not emit harmful fumes, or do not shake the balance of an ecosystem, the rechargeable batteries that power these green machines, gadgets and devices still carry an “inherent” danger to nature. Many of the elements used in manufacturing batteries are in fact toxic pollutants, and each has their own negative effects on the environment if not handled properly.

Lead-acid: Lead Toxicity

Many of you have probably guessed the toxic element in here already. Lead, as we all know is extremely toxic to life. Sure, you don’t die when you touch it, but because it does not have any particular use in any living organism’s body systems, it would only serve to disrupt it and cause different kinds of illnesses. It is even more horrible to imagine that deep cycle lead-acid batteries are currently the number one choice for solar and wind energy systems. Fortunately though, some countries employ a strict rule to keep recycling all lead used and produced in all industries.

Nickel-Cadmium (NiCd): Cadmium Poisoning

The nickel-cadmium battery owes its toxicity of course to the heavy metal cadmium. Cadmium in its pure form is lustrous, and is naturally released by geologic phenomena such as volcano eruptions. It is soluble in acid, and is easily absorbed by organic material in the soil. Living organisms that thrive on or under the ground are the ones that are most susceptible to cadmium poisoning. Today nickel-cadmium batteries are generally banned in the European Union, and part of what is paid for NiCd batteries in the United States is actually a fee for its proper disposal.

Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH): Manufacturing Hazards

This type of battery is classified as one of the cleaner, safer batteries around. Naturally, this is due to the absence of outright toxic elements. Despite this level of “purity” though, NiMH batteries may not be completely safe to the environment, due to the mining and manufacturing processes that is done to extract the required elements. In addition, nickel (or nickel compounds at least) are currently under consideration by researchers as a probable carcinogen. Widespread use of NiMH batteries however is limited nowadays, and they are only currently used as a quick, inexpensive and temporary battery replacement. Nickel Metal Hydride batteries, however, are widely used in hybrid cars.

Nickel-Zinc (NiZn): Zinc Production Problems

The second oldest type of battery after lead-acid batteries, nickel-zinc batteries have been in use since the early 1900’s. Like the NiMH battery, it contains no toxic elements and is also somewhat inexpensive. The NiZn battery has taken a revival of sorts as of late, in the form of a source of power for many cordless devices. If we are to state a negative environmental impact for this kind of battery, it would be the world production rate of zinc (which continually increases at a level that would eventually disrupt ecosystems in the future).

Lithium ion: Corrosive Toxicity

Currently the largest growing rechargeable battery type around the world, Lithium ion batteries hold impressive marks when it comes to overall efficiency and form factor flexibility. Though the United States government currently classifies Lithium ion batteries as relatively harmless, it has one striking flaw that makes it potentially harmful to the environment. Pure lithium or metallic lithium is very reactive to water and forms an extremely corrosive lithium hydroxide. Don’t worry though because manufacturers are always very careful about this fact. They never expose the battery pack to air or water vapor, and use a non-aqueous electrolyte for the cells.

Despite the toxicity of these elements found in rechargeable batteries, it is highly doubtful that the manufacturers of these batteries would stop producing them any time soon. True, these elements have negative effects on the environment, but if we have a solid plan to keep it away properly, we’ll probably survive long enough to invent a true clean and green rechargeable battery for our green technologies.

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by NISSANEV on Flickr

Christian Crisostomo
About Christian Crisostomo (266 Posts)

Christian Crisostomo is just your average tech geek that loves to see man's newest and most recent technological exploits. He holds great interest in the potentials of green technology, and is enthusiastic about the continuous development of environment-friendly alternative energy.


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