Today, it’s World Environment Day, designated by the United Nations to draw our attention on environmental challenges of our time. This day is certainly not the only but a good one to look at the cost of batteries, from an environmental point of view but also regarding the effort of replacing them.

Batteries are part of our mobile lives. We find them in each portable device and in millions of remote controls for smart home and building automation. The number of sensors in the Internet of Things (IoT) will grow like never seen before – we are talking of billions to trillions of sensors. As most of them will be connected wirelessly, we need to rethink the technologies how to power the sensors, otherwise the demand of batteries will increase into infinity.

Limits of lithium

However, infinity is no option for a battery-powered IoT. Calculating 10 trillion wireless sensors delivering the needed data for the IoT, they would require 1 million tons of lithium – the combined worldwide lithium production of 10 years. And we even need much more for our smart phones, electrical cars, local energy storage systems etc. Consequently: there is not enough lithium in the world for all of these applications.

Additionally, the environmental impact of lithium mining results in water shortage, air pollution and destruction of nature reserves. No recycling technology exists today that is capable of producing enough pure lithium for a second use in batteries.*

Lithium is just one element batteries contain. There are also toxic heavy metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium, and nickel in batteries, which are detrimental to the environment. At the end of their lifetime they need to be disposed carefully and expensively. Recycling is not always an option and is polluting as well. Reports reveal that it takes 6 to 10 times more energy to reclaim metals from some recycled batteries than from mining.*

Challenge of changing

Besides the environmental impact of battery production, disposal and recycling, there are further costs, we need to consider as batteries mean maintenance.

Wireless connectivity supports devices to be flexibly installed or mobile and their location needs to be documented and updated as the location changes. In a large building system, hundreds of sensors are distributed over several floors and offices. Often, the devices are mounted unobtrusively in places that are difficult to reach, e.g. on or above drop ceilings. Depending on the battery technology in use, a user will dispose between 200 and 1,600 batteries over 20 years in a residential home with only 50 nodes.

In addition, each device has a different battery access method and requires different types of batteries. This results in extra work, making the battery replacement a challenging and time consuming effort. Usually, batteries don’t run out of energy at the same time. So, the technician might just have left the facility after changing some batteries when the next battery dies. Well, call the technician again.

Benefits of batteryless

Considering the costs of batteries, the IoT with its trillions of sensor notes needs a more ecobalanced and maintenance-free alternative to power mobile devices. This alternative exists today and is already deployed in building automation and smart home systems or in outdoor environmental monitoring systems: energy harvesting wireless sensors.

Like we switch our power production to the use of renewable energy sources, such as sun, wind, water etc., batteryless sensors use the same principles of harvesting energy from the surrounding environment at a micro level. Miniaturized energy converters use kinetic motion, light or temperature differences to power wireless sensing and data communication. There is no need for a battery change and disposal ever, no need for time consuming maintenance. Simply install and forget.

It is a simple calculation example and our ecological responsibility to realize a self-powered Internet of Things. Energy harvesting wireless sensors are the only way to avoid tons of battery waste and to ensure reliable, maintenance-free system functionality.

[*Source: Battery University: BU-705: How to Recycle Batteries]

About The Author

Andreas Schneider is Chief Executive Officer at EnOcean and one of the EnOcean founders. His personal enthusiasm for the EnOcean world is to see the idea of energy harvesting wireless, “his child”, growing globally to a leading technology. Andreas has been appointed to the Forbes Technology Council in 2019.

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