How often have you sat there, laptop battery at 3%, plug nowhere in sight, cursing it and the vermin that made it? Well, a recent story in Next Energy News may spell relief to your power woes.
The article expounds the wonders of a battery known as a betavoltaic, which utilizes among other things, radioactive isotopes. Hang on, radioactive? Apparently, it makes use of electron, or beta emissions, which happen as a neutron decays into a proton, and are not harmful to health, being a different sort of reaction then fission or fusion. I’m no scientist, so I’ll let you muddle through the rest. The end result is a battery that can last 30 years, with no recharge needed.
There are some, including myself, who at first found it a little doubtful that this is a true story, as the article, claiming that the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory is working on this had no links to either them, or any further documentation/research on this. Perhaps just poor journalism, perhaps just not true. For those scientifically inclined, this page seems to give more credence to the validity of this, and in fact it appears these batteries have been in existence since the 1950s, only in much larger applications, like satellites.
However, for the sake of discussion, let’s say it is indeed real and coming soon to a laptop near you. There are many questions that come to my mind when considering this: If the batteries last for decades, and your average laptop sees between 1 and 5 years active duty, what then happens to these batteries? As it is now, laptops are constantly being reshaped, requiring a likewise specifically shaped battery to fit there. Could it be possible to corral all the laptop makers to have the same battery slot, thus enabling interchangeability?
Assuming this is unlikely, could the batteries themselves be made to change size to fit different computers? Anything’s possible, but with the rapidly changing landscape for laptops, even 5 years sees large changes in their needs and capabilities. The information on betavoltaics suggests that, when dead, they leave inert materials behind. And what about the 25 years in between? According to its PowerPedia entry, “A thick epoxy shield prevents the chemical components of these cells from leaking out and entering the environment.” Just fine, until it’s compressed underneath tons of garbage, prying it open.
Moving away from the batteries for a moment, let’s ponder the machines themselves. Is it possible, in this day and age where people crave the newest, the latest, the most “braggable” technology, that manufacturers, and the consumers themselves, could rethink their orientation, designing machines for longevity, modifiability, and yet still retain their cool, in more then one sense, for the consumers who own them? If this could be so, the combination of a long lived battery with a long lived machine would certainly make for a positive impact on the amount of resources used, and the resulting waste generated by their manufacture, use, and disposal.
Paul Smith is a sustainable business innovator, the founder of GreenSmith Consulting, and an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio School of Management in San Francisco. His overarching talent is “bottom lining” complex ideas, in a way that is understandable and accessible to a variety of audiences, internal and external to a company.