The world is going electric. Gartner estimates that more than six million electric vehicles, covering cars, buses, vans and heavy trucks, will be shipped in 2022, a 34% increase on 2021. In construction, another analyst has forecast that the global electric construction equipment market will be worth $105 billion by 2042.
At the heart of this growth is the boom in batteries. The price of batteries has fallen, with Bain & Co noting that battery costs per kWh fell by more than 85% from 2010 to 2019, while capacity (and therefore the amount of time the battery can go between charges) has risen.
Why batteries might be unsustainable
However, there is an irony in this growth in batteries. While many people, particularly consumers, will be interested in battery-powered products from a sustainability perspective, batteries present a significant environmental issue if they are not recycled properly. The cells contain nickel, lithium and cobalt: an average 60 kWh battery requires about 90 kilograms of these metals. However, supplies of these metals are exhaustible. One analyst predicts that global demand for nickel will outweigh supply by 2024, which could push manufacturers to tap previously harder-to-access sources of the metal.
So, there is a significant requirement to extend the lifespan of batteries and recycle them so that their disposal has a minimal environmental impact.
Earlier in the year, battery cell investor Britishvolt partnered with mining giant Glencore to develop a UK-focused battery recycling solution with a plant that, once complete, would be able to process 10,000 tons of lithium-ion batteries a year.
Yet recycling should be a last resort. Exposing the metals during recycling triggers oxidization, making it harder to reuse them. What would be more valuable and more sustainable would be to prolong the lifespan of batteries.
Improving lifecycles with better battery management
This is where effective battery management comes in.
The perceived drawback of electric vehicles has always been the amount of charging time an EV requires for the distance it could go. As battery capacity and charging infrastructure has improved, so has the uptake of EVs in the market.
But that’s not just confined to the automotive sector. Heavy-duty gardening machinery, such as lawnmowers, leaf blowers and chainsaws, are increasingly battery-powered, as charges last longer and more work can be accomplished. Then there are handheld devices, such as scanners, used in warehouse operations and logistics.
This isn’t hugely different from using AA batteries in TV remotes or other domestic appliances. But just as it is frustrating for the average consumer to want to use a battery-powered device and find the power needs replacing, it is unproductive for a worker operating battery-powered tools to find that the pack needs charging. The difference is one of inconvenience versus business productivity.
Data driving better battery performance
The question becomes less about how much work can be done with a single charge and more about how to structure work around the need for charging. With machine learning and IoT sensors, predicting when a battery will need recharging or even ultimately replacing is possible. Automating battery management and optimizing productivity can inform recycling or reuse. It’s about extending performance, predicting how many hours an operator can get out of a charge, and telling them when it’s time to repurpose the battery for different equipment.
For example, cold weather impacts battery performance, so it might make sense to install new batteries as the weather gets colder to get more out of them while conditions are challenging. Then they will be replaced after warm weather and repurposed for another use, perhaps where the working environment is more hospitable all year round.
Batteries as a service
It’s an approach that should be applied to all industries using batteries. It’s already happening in automotive, with the introduction of battery-as-a-service (BaaS) concepts. Chinese EV manufacturer NIO launched its BaaS offering in 2020, allowing buyers to purchase the car but rent the battery. Customers then choose a battery rental package based on their needs, with the size of the battery (and therefore the monthly subscription charge) adaptable. When a battery needs changing, NIO provides either an at-home replacement service, or the customer can take it to one of NIO’s Power Swap stations. In this way, drivers always have a battery optimized for their requirements, and NIO can retain control of the battery lifecycle while keeping customers locked into its ecosystem.
Using technology to automate battery management
To enable it effectively, it requires a technology overlay of sensors collecting data and applying machine learning (ML) to generate insights that inform decision making around battery changes and repurposing. Even that decision making can become automated – why create a human bottleneck when what’s required is an understanding that when a battery reaches a certain level of deficiency, it needs to be taken out of its current use and adapted for alternative purposes. This can even be built into the contracts of BaaS agreements, with blockchain-enabled smart contracts automatically triggering a request for customer action (such as choosing their preferred replacement method) when battery efficiency data reaches an agreed level.
The growth in electrification can help us all lead more sustainable and productive lives. ML, IoT and other technologies can automate battery management in such a way that not only optimizes productivity but extends lifecycles and helps reduce batteries’ environmental impact.
The growth in new, more sustainable business models utilizing innovative technology such as ML, IoT and blockchain to create smart connected products is part of the growing circular economy. Read more in our latest eBook.
I am a technology writer with a decade of experience in business, technology and logistics. From starting off my career writing questions for a TV quiz show, I’m now spending my time looking at how the world of business is going digital and transforming a variety of sectors and industries.