The Battery is the Message: The Materialities of Powering New Media

The thoughts in the following article came about during the Community Power Bank(CPB) workshops at Pixelache Helsinki in 2015–16.The project recycled Lithium 18650 batteries with community participation and re- purposed them to build power banks for handheld media devices. The workshops were conducted at the Museum of Photography and at the OSCE (Open Source Circular Economy) Days in Helsinki, Finland. All acknowledgements are due to the participants and colleagues in this project. For more information see: http://samirbhowmik.cc/2016/06/22/community-power-bank-recycling-lithium-ion-battery-workshops-2016/

THE BATTERY IS THE MESSAGE

When media start to explode in your hands, it deserves a description. When it causes airplane evacuations, general panic and hysteria, it warrants an examination. When it quietly dies in your pocket before the end of an eight hour work day just like the other two billion smartphones, it deserves an explanation. It is reasonable to believe that a ‘Thermal Runaway’ event is far more spectacular than a quiet smartphone death. Leakages take place, fire and toxic chemicals are involved, possibly leading to personal bodily injury. It can be traumatic. Thermal Runaway is today one of the prime modes of battery failure. Chemical reactions within raise its internal temperature, and if not dissipated, the temperature keeps rising that will further accelerate the reactions causing even more heat to be produced, eventually resulting in an explosion. Especially a Lithum-ion cell above a certain temperature, its internal chemical reactions out of control, will explode.

When the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 exploded. Source NYTimes. Photo: Edgar Su 2017.

While fast computation and slimmer devices become the norm, transistors double every eighteen months, and Tesla’s SpaceX sends a flying robot into space, the battery concealed under the hood of media devices remains a messy and primitive territory. While historically battery development was instrumental in the transformation of modern communication systems such as telegraphy, with the advent of portable computing, battery innovation had considerably slowed down. Is it because of the dangerous chemicals and the volatilities of the elements involved? Is it because technological devices themselves are tied to an obsolescence perpetuated by Silicon Valley that a rechargeable battery lasts only a thousand cycles? Is it because there is simply no need to innovate as long as the battery lasts the consumer upgrade cycle (currently at 1-2 years)? While Lithium-ion cells were introduced in the mass market in 1991, battery capacity has only increased 5-6% annually. Battery technology has not even come anywhere close to doubling, matching the trajectory of the components that it powers, rather grown only eight-fold since the first commercial batteries were introduced in 1854.

Dabbling with dangerous chemicals did not deter turn-of the century media innovators. But with the computing age, the perils of acid burns got concealed away. Makes sense, for a mass consumption product. The less tinkering, the better. Thus, from the easily detachable battery packs in laptops and mobile devices a decade earlier, we are now faced with super-glued batteries within the machines without easy access. This marks the strange and steady inaccessibility of the battery from the machines themselves. To change a battery pack today requires extensive documentation, expertise, special tools and almost machinic dexterity of fingers to pick and replace a load of 2 and 3 millimeter screws. One mistake, you end up short-circuiting the electrical connections on the main board and permanently damaging the machine. While there exist a plethora of surface-level fixes on smartphones and laptops on how to save energy and extend battery life, not a lot can be found on battery repair and reuse. Batteries are designed today as not meant to be replaced.

Lithium batteries recovered and recycled at the OSCE Days for the Community Power Bank. Photo: Justin Tyler Tate 2015

This deliberate obsolescence as Hertz and Parikka (2012) argue: “takes place on a micro-political level of design: difficult-to-replace batteries in personal MP3 audio players, proprietary cables and chargers that are only manufactured for a short period of time, discontinued customer support or plastic enclosures that are glued shut and break if opened.” As such, the lithium battery no longer works after approximately 2-3 years or 1000 cycles and the media device will require professional service or will be discarded. Smartphone and laptop batteries are not easily removable. The battery degrades and the replacement of the battery becomes very expensive as it cannot be undertaken by the average user. This early obsolescence of the device due to the lifetime of the battery might be an intention of the manufacturers who favored high-powered batteries with long run-time, and, therefore the most volatile chemistries. Eisler (2017) says that these were, “guided by the principle of planned obsolescence, manufacturers assumed that consumers would throw away and replace old handheld devices long before aging batteries became a problem. Accordingly, they devoted hardly any research to battery reliability and safety.” Manufacturers have argued that the cost of resources, production cycles and marketing strategies cannot be ignored and that they release the most ‘optimal’ product. As such, materials and components of inexpensive-quality are used “which statistically achieve a “sufficient” lifetime from manufacturer’s perspective” (Proske et al., 2016: 1-8). Taffel (2012) thinks that this illustrates how corporations producing these technologies are eager for consumption to speed up rather than slow down, deploying a combination of perceived and planned obsolescence in order to reduce product lifespans, which increases ecological costs but also raises short-term profitability.

Battery waste, including lead and sulfuric acid, at the abandoned factory site of Metales y Derivados, Col. Chilpancingo, Tijuana. Photo: Darcy McKinnon and Vicky Funari

Throwing away obsolete batteries is nothing new. The portable Columbia dry cells of 1890s were meant to be discarded as consumer goods. It was chemically efficient and economical to produce in mass quantities (Ginsberg, 2005). Maintainance-free, durable, non-spilling and cheap, the 1.5 volt Columbia was so good that it remained the most used and discarded battery for the next six decades, filling the landfills with toxic waste. Eveready in 1950s introduced the now ubiquitous cylindrical alkaline battery, that is today the most common disposable battery. These last two to four months and then have to be thrown away. Made of cheap materials, the economic costs of recycling are high and as such these batteries have constantly been part of mainstream solid waste. Today rechargeable Lithium batteries are replacing alkaline batteries to a certain extent. But these too are guided by increasing miniaturization (Tarascon and Armand, 2001: 359), manufacturer priorities of cost, cycles of production, bottom lines and even price-fixing. [1] A “Science for Environment Policy” study by the European Union in 2012 says that Lithium-ion batteries are the most energy consuming technologies using the equivalent of 1.6 kg of oil per kg of battery produced. [2] They also ranked the worst in greenhouse gas emissions with up to 12.5 kg of CO2 equivalent emitted per kg of battery. Yet, after a thousand cycles, Lithium ends up in the recycling sorting station awaiting an expensive extraction process or dumped in landfills.

The brine pools and processing areas of the Soquimich lithium mine on the Atacama salt flat in Chile. Photo: Ivan Alvarado

Lithium does not freely exist on earth. Due to its highly reactive nature, it only occurs in compounds of brines, clays and granites. Oceans contain a vast amount of Lithium, in the range of over 230 billion tons. Although Lithium is naturally abundant, there are only few places in the world where high grade Lithium can be obtained, and that includes the salt flats in Chile. The other ingredient in a battery such as Cobalt is also a highly prized mineral, as investigated by Frankel (2016) who says that the majority of which comes from the questionable and unethical mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The manufacturing processes of both Lithium and Cobalt present huge environmental and health hazards. Recycling technologies are yet to catch up. Thus, when the battery dies, much of media also die and end up on the shores of Ghana. Rechargeable battery waste clocks in at fourteen thousand tons in the United States alone. The recycling of dead batteries by corporations are at best meant to maintain a superficial image of the so-called circular economy rather than a deep commitment to environment and humanity.

In this article, I investigate a key component of media technologies: the battery as a media artifact, that not by itself can be considered media (perhaps as a medium for electric energy) for dataflows, but without which media cannot operate nor exist. I excavate the battery’s obsolescence as tied to media, and its throwaway origins. Why and how hardware design came to conceal it and how software today merely provides a surface tweak. I examine the battery’s contemporary lifecycle in the energy economy, from mining to extraction to recycling that face formidable challenges. What can be gained from studying the development trajectory of the battery? The goal of this text is to direct attention toward the dependence of new media on energy and material resources. From extraction to toxic landfills, understanding the battery is critical to understanding the future of media technologies that is today so intensively based on energy. As Thomas Parke Hughes (1993) asserts: “the analysis of an incoherent, formative period in the history of energy systems [is] likely to be meaningful to present dilemmas of energy systems and their future growth.” Thus it is imperative to understand how batteries shaped modern media and how new media today shapes power generation and storage. Ultimately, considering the proliferation of technological media and the energy exploitation of earth elements could perhaps help us comprehend planetary climate change, that in itself is subject to a thermal runaway event.

FROM LIFE-GIVER TO DISPOSABLE

It is widely held that batteries helped transform modern media. Not only did it’s development facilitate the emergence of telegraphy, but also acted as a driving force for electrical telecommunications at the turn of the nineteenth century. In its meteoric history, the battery would be both seen as a life-giver, an ‘instrument of life’ that infuses ‘a spark’ to Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, [3] and also as a facilitator of death and destruction. It would be a chemical catalyst for conveying messages through the wires, during war, during peace, under the sea through the transatlantic cables, harbinger of celebratory news, and a messenger of stock market crashes. But with the emergence of electrification, telegraphy would move away to the stable supply of direct current. [4] Batteries would remain as messy chemical experiments, undependable, releasing poisonous fumes, hard to handle and refill. With the failures of batteries in lighting systems and trolley cars, industry reluctance would grow. And as electric supply grids would become dominant and trustworthy, batteries would get miniaturized and transform into consumer goods to support smaller electrical applications.

Perhaps, the first primitive instance where both transmission of data and the power of batteries come together was Dr. Charles Morrison’s electrostatic telegraph system (1753). His proposal: 'An Expeditious Method of Conveying Intelligence’ describes a system that uses 26 insulated wires to conduct discrete charges from a battery causing alphabetic inscription on paper. [5] The battery in this case is an array of Leyden jars, that which Benjamin Franklin also experiments with. Here, stored in between two metal foils wrapped around the inside and the outside of the glass jar, the intermittent static electric charge serves for laboratory experiments with telegraphy. But the jars never developed as a reliable source of stored electricity. The search for a dependable power source to transmit data would take a pseudo-biological turn when Luigi Galvani would find that two dissimilar metals (copper and zinc) applied to the leg of a dead frog would make it twitch, believing that the source of the electricity ‘the electrical fluid’, the ‘spark of life’ was in the frog itself in the form of animal electricity. That this fluid could be harnessed and stored to give ‘life’ to transmission systems.

Galvani’s De Viribus Electricitatis in Motu Musculari (1791) depicts the experimental setup Galvani used to study the effect of atmospheric electricity on a dead frog.

According to Sha (2012) “where Galvani believed that he had discovered a new form of electricity, Volta insisted that such animal electricity was merely artificial electricity, a man-made electricity caused by the connection between two metals.” To prove this, Volta’s ‘battery’ with electro-chemical reactions demonstrated a steady source of current (rather than a momentary discharge) from a cluster of metal disks, copper and zinc, in between paper disks soaked in brine or salt: the Voltaic pile. Volta, the physicist did not believe in the existence of organic electricity, nor was he interested in the conducting liquids between the different metals of his batteries. But as Zielinski (2006) argues, as opposed to Volta, Johann Ritter believed the generation of electricity involved the inseparable parts of the process of both the metals and the electrolyte connecting the metals. [6] More than as a ‘fluid’, something that could be captured inside a glass jar containing alcohol or water, or in a frog’s body, electric current and voltage turned out to be a result of chemical reactions among elements. Although at first Volta’s pile was merely a scientific curiosity, within a decade it become the foundational basis for all electro-chemical cells used in electrical telegraphy.

Soon after, the Daniel cell became the first sophisticated electrochemical cell that could be practically applied by improving upon the Voltaic pile, making it commercially viable. Grove's nitric acid cell then improved the Daniel cell, and become the essential battery of the early American telegraph systems. [7] This development also built upon the formulation of Ohm’s Law, electromagnetism, and the Morse devices, on the discoveries of Couloumb, Maxwell and Faraday. According to Herzig (2008), around this time, in the 1840s, portable battery systems or galvanic induction coils designed specifically to generate power for therapeutic applications had already become available. This paralleled the growing experimentation and widespread use in electrical telegraphy and the earliest forms of this multi-cell ‘battery’ was ironically used for military communications, as in the time of the American Civil War. The Leclanche cell (1868), a carbon-zinc wet cell was the first practical portable battery, to be adopted by the Belgian telegraphic service, and besides use in doorbells, it also served as the primary battery for Bell’s telephone. Further, Gassner’s zinc-carbon dry cells in 1886 eliminated the practice of refilling, and rendered the battery disposable. This is immediately reflected in the same decade in the emergence of the Columbia Dry Cell, that marked the transformation of batteries from industrial products to consumer goods.

A Telegraph Battery Wagon during the American Civil War. Source: Jason Torchinsky

But, throughout those early days of development, batteries failed and failed miserably. And, they remained messy. Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller (2012) in Greening the Media note that sulfuric and nitric acid were used in each revision of battery technology in the nineteenth century. The chemical reactions dissolved the zinc, copper, mercury and other elements, toxic gases such as nitric oxide were produced. “In addition to inhaling the fumes, which could damage lung and mucous membranes, contact with the battery acids harmed the skin and caused deep lining of hands (palmar fissures) into which other workplace filth became lodged.” These chemicals would be continue to be present even in the dry cell batteries as paste. “Servicing these batteries involved either replacing worn lead plates and posts and cracked jars or removing any remaining oil or spent battery acid solution, which would have been dumped into a containment sump or directly into the ground. Workers were exposed to acids, acid vapor, and lead, and overflows from the sump entered the sewage system and waterways or soaked into the land under the buildings” (Maxwell and Miller, 2012; Snyder, 1992: 70).

Batteries kept causing unending and insurmountable problems (Schallenberg, 1981: 725-752). With the onset of centralized electrification in the last decades of the nineteenth century that provided a large-scale stable source of electricity, the need for innovation in storage batteries declined. Edison would rather build more generators, engines and boilers to supply extra direct current than invest in clumsy and inefficient storage batteries. [8] Lighting system battery installations and battery-operated trolley cars also failed (due to rapid degeneration of battery plates added to the long term costs), and as such a strong opposition (by the direct-current interests) dominated the electricity market. Additionally, commercial interests due to continuous patent litigation, small companies without capital to influence the evolution of the technology (vs Edison) slowed down battery development. Hughes (1993) shows how alternating current transmission also started displacing direct current and storage batteries used in power supply. Eisler (2017) thinks that “the halting and distributed nature of the research, development, and production of advanced power sources could be considered a legacy of what Richard Schallenberg characterized as the inertia that gripped the field of electrochemistry in the wake of the disappearance of electric vehicles from U.S. public roads and of large-scale use of batteries in electric utility systems by the 1920s.”

A streetcar powered by Edison storage batteries in New York (1909).

The slump in battery usage continued with the lack of proper control equipment, and the failure to develop maintenance and operation procedures. It pushed batteries towards other smaller applications where it was not feasible nor practical to draw power from the electrical grid, where the chemical reactions could be contained in smaller secure packets. Thus, batteries available as domestic sources of power led to the introduction of electric doorbells, burglar alarms, electric sewing machines, and incandescent lights, including the battery-powered flashlight (Ginsberg, 2005). While innovation in battery chemistry crawled through the war years, with a move toward miniaturization and portability, the battery got packaged into standardized sizes. [9] From glass jars to wooden containers to cardboard enclosures, driven by the economics of manufacturing and consumption, for the next sixty years the battery became disposable. Thus, Eisler (2017) notes that “for much of the postwar era, most manufacturers of commercial batteries contented themselves with a handful of proven, prosaic, and profitable electrochemical couples (nickel-iron, carbon-zinc, lead-acid, and nickel-cadmium).” By the time Eveready introduced the portable cylindrical alkaline batteries in 1959, the messy chemistry was sealed away from view, and obsolescence coded into the design.

FROM CHEMICALS TO PORTABLES

Lithium came to batteries via several unrelated scientific routes none of which were related to energy storage. Its applications ranged from medical treatment of gout to mania, to greases for aircraft engines, lithium soaps, to the production of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. [10] “The commercial lithium cobalt oxide battery was not an original discrete invention, nor did the impetus for it originate in the electronics or computing sectors” (Eisler, 2017: 373). While the alkaline battery flooded the markets and homes, it was the need for a better chemistry that drove research to lithium. It took well over twenty years to commercial production. Meanwhile portable computing had emerged, that had to rely on the older generation of non-lithium batteries. Industry could not agree to common laptop batteries, and diverse battery solutions followed. Individual lithium-ion cells were grouped into packs, concealed into separate containers within laptops while lithium pouch cells made their way into mobile handsets, and later on to ultra-thin portables. Today, their narrow form factor, flexibility and high energy density allows for slimmer devices. Yet the chemistry does not extend the battery lifetime beyond a thousand cycles despite all sorts of surface-level software tweaking. Fortunately this disadvantage fits right into the industry’s hopes of a short consumer upgrade cycle. After two to three years, the battery’s chemicals are exhausted, and so does the life of the device.

Lithium is a highly reactive element (it can explode upon contact with water), as such a lot of energy can be stored in its atomic bonds. The advantage of using lithium was demonstrated already in the 1970s with the assembly of primary cells. According to Tarascon and Armand (2001) “owing to their high capacity and variable discharge rate, they rapidly found applications as power sources for watches, calculators or for implantable medical devices.” However, the cells soon encountered irregular lithium growth as the metal got replated during each subsequent discharge–recharge cycle which led to explosion hazards. Thus, two separate development paths looking for alternatives took place: first, toward the cylindrical shape with liquid electrolyte and the second, toward a smaller dry paste based lithium pouch. Both paths were delayed due to lack of suitable negative electrode materials, electrolytes and failures to meet safety standards. Performance and costs also hampered their progress. Thus, as Eisler (2017) notes, “battery technoscience languished for most of the twentieth century until the late 1980s and early 1990s.”

The Mac Portable (Apple’s first portable computer) was powered by an internal lead-acid/gel battery. Source: Oldcomputers.net

Meanwhile, portable computing had to rely on a variety of power alternatives, none of which were perfected. Such as nickel metal hydride batteries that were the initial workhorse for early media devices such as computers and cell phones (Whittingham, 2008: 412). Eisler (2017) shows how “research and development of batteries […] occurred at a great social and intellectual distance from research and development of consumer devices, especially mobile computers.” By late eighties, the vast majority of laptops relied exclusively on proprietary nickel-cadmium batteries, that usually lasted two to three hours. The Mac Portable even resorted to a lead-acid battery (LEM Staff, 1989). User frustration with short battery life led some manufacturers to design machines that could also operate with off-the-shelf alkaline cells (Krohn, 1990: 21). Already, earlier, The TRS-80 Model 100 laptop, introduced in 1983 used four alkaline batteries for up to 16-20 hours before they were discarded (Kdulcimer, 2017). The Poqet PC was powered by two AA-size batteries that lasted anywhere between three to twelve hours. However, the majority of manufacturers could not agree to standardize laptop batteries, and stuck to nickel cadmium and the nickel metal hydride batteries despite their high costs and low power storage. [11] These remained preferred in laptops manufactured throughout the late eighties to early nineties.

Polaroid’d Polapulse battery was a six volt battery in Polaroid cameras that consisted of four wafer-thin Leclanche cells. Source: Lateral Science

Sony Corporation in June 1991 commercialized the secondary Li-ion cell, “having a potential exceeding 3.6 V (three times that of alkaline systems) and gravimetric energy densities as high as 120–150 Whkg–1 (two to three times those of usual Ni–Cd batteries) found in most of today’s high-performance portable electronic devices” (Tarascon and Armand, 2001: 359). This was also the outcome of sustained experimentation by Goodenough and Whittingham in the lithium-ion cobalt system and the intercalation method of lithium (Scuilla, 2007: 1-9). These resulted in the now popularly known as ‘18650’ cell, that actually follows the dimensions (18 x 65mm) of the cylindrical packaging. Soon, 18650s were bundled into battery packs, with battery management systems. Toshiba T3400CT was the first ultraportable to have a lithium-ion battery pack. Individual lithium-ion cells were grouped into packs (the metals are themselves folded and rolled within), concealed into separate containers within laptops while lithium pouch cells made their way into mobile handsets. By late 1999, the drive toward slimmer systems pushed portables toward the second development path of the rectangular lithium-polymer pouch cell. [12] This thin film battery type due to its versatility, flexibility and lightness has driven the continuing trend towards slimness and miniaturization of media devices. [13] In today’s ultra-slim notebooks, these pouches can be easily jammed into small spaces (like in the MacBook Air) and spread across the insides of a laptop.

Macbook pro 13" Touch Bar disassembled showing the compartmentalized Lithium battery. Source: iFixit 2016.

While lithium ion batteries disappeared into battery packs, “manufacturers tended to undersize battery cavities for the expected performance or otherwise mismatched them with power source form factors” (Eisler, 2017: 379; Brodd, 2005: 24-29). Faster processors were introduced, “that generated more heat and required more power and battery designers increased energy density by thinning separators to make room for more reactive material, creating thermal management problems and narrowed margins of safety” (Eisler, 2017; Kanellos, 2006). Then, to solve these issues, battery management systems (BMS) came into being, as a way to monitor each and individual battery within a set. [14] Consisting of hardware and software, the BMS is the only way one can keep in check rogue cells and ensure there are no Thermal Runaways. This is stark reminder that every individual lithium-ion battery is unique in terms of content and chemistry. Even in the case of pouch formats, the chemical compositions vary from plate to plate from paste to paste, always adding a degree of uncertainty to the perceived performance of the battery. Interface-level fixes can hardly address the deep chemical issues within a Lithium-ion battery. In the case of smartphones, a plethora of energy saving applications exist. These throttle applications that run in the background, reducing the power needs, but do not directly address issues within the battery. In this way the battery inside a smartphone or laptop is usually out of reach both at the software and hardware levels. Thus the consumer has merely the illusion of being in control of the battery and energy needs of her media device.

Most of the space inside an iPhone 7 is taken up by the 3.8 Volt Lithium-ion battery. Source: iFixit 2017.

Tarascon and Armand (2001) show how with the growing demand for slimmer media devices, battery research became focused on thinner, lighter, space- effective and shape-flexible batteries with larger autonomy. But Eisler (2017) argues that “at the systems level, however, power density did not scale.” [15] Which is at odds with the tremendous volume of data transfer, streaming and mobile computing that has simultaneously placed a great load on energy needs. The current chemistry does not extend the battery lifetime beyond a thousand cycles. Replacing a Lithium battery is a task replete with potential fire hazards. This is inherently tied to how the industry designs portables to discourage users to tinker and with the intention of discard after a few years. Not only are the batteries glued within the body of the device, but merely to uncover them from within the bowels of the machine requires expertise and specialized tools. While consumers upgrade, media gets discarded and batteries are thrown away, along with the precious elements extracted from the earth. The embodied energy of extraction, processing, manufacturing and labor is similarly wasted adding to carbon footprints, polluted water and global warming.

THE STAINED EARTH

“It is the earth that provides for media and enables it,” Jussi Parikka (2015) writes in Geology of Media, “the minerals, materials of(f) the ground, the affordances of its geophysical reality that make technical media happen.” Elements such as Lithium dug out of the earth today form the energetic backbone of handheld and portable media, including over a billion smart phones. Not only Lithium, but also the supporting minerals of the energy industry such as Cobalt, Nickel, Manganese or Graphite are all extracted at a considerable price to the environment. This extraction is energy-intensive, not to mention the billions of gallons of precious water used in the refinement processes. Recycling batteries, especially re-extracting the prized minerals remain a vexing problem. Although, lithium-ion batteries have the largest impact on metal depletion, its recycling remains complicated. [16] Battery waste is considerable, amounting to millions of tons a year, only a fraction gets recycled. The damage to the environment remains unquantified.

Salar de Atacama, the largest salt flat in Chile, the source of one of the world’s largest Lithium reserves. Photo: Francesco Mocellin

Lithium is comparatively a rare element, rarer than Cobalt, Neodymium and Nickel, metals linked with electric mobility (Ziemann, Weil, and Schebek, 2012: 26-34), and as such only occurs in pegmatites and brine deposits in low concentrations. Metallgesellschaft AG, a German company in 1923 initiated the first commercial production of lithium metal using the electrolysis of a molten mixture of lithium chloride and potassium chloride. Lithium was primarily produced by electrolysis in the United States during this time. With the demand rising for lithium-ion batteries, attention has shifted to brine extraction in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. The Lithium triangle between these nations is the center of world’s lithium extraction (Sanderson, 2016). Lithium is also mined in Australia and China, but extracted from rock. In the Salar de Atacama desert, brine is pumped out from under the desert and then evaporated in artificial pools that stretch for hundreds of kilometers. [17] The concentrated brine is then transported to processing plants in coastal Chile, where they are refined into powder. The powder finally is shipped to the various battery manufacturers based around the globe.

According to Sean Cubitt (2016) and William Tahil (2007) the mining of Lithium consumes large amounts of water, almost 65 percent of water resources and is energy-intensive. The electric energy consumption of producing a ton of Lithium Carbonate is 1.8 mmbtu (British Thermal Unit), and this resource comes from over 60 percent fossil fuels (Dunn et al., 2012). Only 40 percent of the Lithium resource is recovered and the rest is re-injected back into the Salar. Cubitt (2016) discusses how this has led to “angry disputes with local communities whose wells run dry, and whose crops are afflicted by runoff from the ponds of saline solution…” Not only water contamination, but also depletion results in less water available for local flora and fauna. Toxic chemicals are used for leaching purposes that require waste treatment amid improper handling and spills (Bodo, 2014). Cubitt (2016) says there are already signs that the two southern lakes of the lithium triangle are heading for depletion at the accelerated demand driven by the new desire for batteries. The possible function of solar reflection of the desert, the dispensing of vast quantities of chlorine, and the massive amounts of corrosive salt water that seeps into the surrounding landscape has yet to be scientifically investigated. Mining has driven off a local species of Flamingos that has led to an increase of cyanobacteria that is lethal to humans, plants and animals. The abuse of water management has also increased the environmental risks of PCBs from polyethelene used in the drying tanks (Cubitt, 2016: 63-150; Wanger, 2011: 202-206).

A Cobalt and Copper mine in Congo. Photo: Michael Robinson Chavez

Meanwhile, Cobalt the other primary element of the Lithium-ion battery has seen demand tripled in the last five years and is projected to double by 2020. Cobalt mining in Congo supplies over 60 percent of the world’s cobalt supplies. Here, according to Frankel (2016), “the world’s soaring demand for cobalt is at times met by workers, including children, who labor in harsh and dangerous conditions.” What is so called ‘artisanal mining’, “an estimated 100,000 cobalt miners in Congo use hand tools to dig hundreds of feet underground with little oversight and few safety measures… Deaths and injuries are common. And the mining activity exposes local communities to levels of toxic metals that appear to be linked to ailments that include breathing problems and birth defects…” These mines have also affected the health of the local population through the pollution of surface water, and concentrations of cobalt remain high in the local community. A large percentage of this artisanally-mined Cobalt goes into the Lithium-ion battery for smartphones, 20 percent in the case of Apple’s iPhones. Frankel (2016) notes that refined Cobalt in the lithium-ion battery can be as much as 5 - 10 grams in a smartphone, 28 grams in a laptop and upto 15 000 grams in an electric car. According to a US EPA Report of 2013, batteries that use nickel and cobalt cathodes and solvent-based electrode processing demonstrate a high potential for environmental and human health impacts. The environmental impacts include resource depletion, global warming, and ecological toxicity those that primarily result from the production, processing and use of cobalt and nickel metal compounds. These can cause adverse respiratory, pulmonary and neurological effects in those exposed.

Backyard recycling of e-waste in Ghana. Source: Brendan Palmer.

What happens to all the minerals that go into a Lithium battery, once the battery dies? Usually, smartphone and laptop manufacturers such as Apple pass the buck to recycling third-party vendors or to local authorities’ recycling programs. According to Valenzuela and Böhm (2017), they demonstrate ‘zero-waste’ optimization strategies, by saying that their laptop batteries last upto five years on one hand, that supposedly saves on buying new batteries, producing less waste, but on the other hand allowing these devices to go obsolete by the death of the battery. Beyond the recycling page of Apple’s website, one stumbles into a confusing dark abyss of vendor offers, municipal laws, and government regulations. The manufacturer washes its hands off. Thus, the recovery rate of lithium-ion batteries, even in first world countries, is in the single digit percent range (Bodo, 2014), and more so since lithium content in each individual battery is around only two percent which makes recovery economically inefficient. Existing recycling processes for spent portable rechargeable batteries from consumer products currently concentrate on valuable cathode materials, such as cobalt and nickel, and do not focus on lithium recovery (Ziemann, Weil, and Schebek, 2012: 26-34). Technologies of recycling lithium back to battery production still remains undeveloped. The only possible recycling done converts battery waste into slags that are used in making concrete, or as most re-enter the environment through landfills causing ecological damage.

CODA

According to Parikka (2013), “the effects of media’s materiality as chemistry and as toxicity are evident in considering what [is] necessary to sustain […] immaterial communication.” Thus, Taffel (2012) insists on studying the flows of energy and matter surrounding digital architectures as crucial to understanding the ecological costs and ethical imperatives surrounding the attention economy. From Leyden jars to the Lithium battery, rare minerals and ‘wet’ chemicals that constitute the battery are what drive and support new media technologies today. And, when these media devices become obsolete, sometimes as a direct consequence of expired chemicals, they end up on the shores of a poor nation, or they end up in vast poisonous landfills. This undesirable flow of energy and matter into waste has a direct impact on our ecosystems and climate. While batteries might get away with fire and injury, the Earth’s runaway climate change as a result of our wastefulness of digital media has planetary implications. [18]

A runaway greenhouse event is supposed to have happened in Venus. Source: BBC. Photo: BBC / Vivien Cumming

Thermal Runaway is like a domino effect. One thing leads to the other, until there is no point of return. Samsung blames the explosive incidents to a design flaw in one case and the other to a manufacturing defect. [19] What happens to the 2.5 million smartphones that are being recalled and most likely will get discarded remains unexplained. Martin Farrer (2016) writing in The Guardian states that “in 2007, the largest battery recall in consumer electronics history took place when Nokia, then the world’s top mobile handset maker, offered to replace 46 million phone batteries produced for it by Japanese maker Matsushita Battery” Out of these only two million phones were replaced, the fate of the rest could be considered to the adding tonnage of e-waste. Available data shown by Robinson (2009) indicates that the global production of E-waste was at least 13.9 million tonnes per year in the middle of this decade; and by 2014, 42 million metric tonnes of e-waste was being generated globally (Balde et al., 2015). The recycling of this e-waste has become even more problematic as it is exported to countries in the Global South where dangerous backyard recycling often take place, posing great health risks to the local communities. [20]

Battery innovation at the turn of the twentieth century transformed modern media technologies and even held the promise of a battery-driven power grid. This would have allowed renewable energy technologies to have developed a century earlier. But market driven energy trade and scales of electrification did not allow such a trajectory. According to Cubitt (2013), contemporary electric power which itself emerges from a messy production, became dominant, advertised as hygienic, toxin-free and clean, an industrial strategy separating us from production, designed to centralize generation, which allows for both conglomeration and speculative markets in power. This made batteries become secondary, as backups and as disposables. Innovation was relegated to the background. Poisonous chemistries dominated energy storage. The emergence of portable computing finally put volatile batteries into the mix of new media technologies. Even then, as Eisler (2017) argues they have commanded little attention since being bundled into the hardware, except when recharging or expensive replacement. Today, a critical component that powers contemporary digital culture, batteries are still ruled by planned obsolescence. And, the messiness of battery chemicals, their unethical mining, extraction and their unpredictability remain hidden glued inside our portable media devices.

NOTES

1. See article ‘EU slaps €166 million fine on Sony, Sanyo, Panasonic battery units over price cartel’: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/12/13/business/corporate-business/eu-slaps-e166-million-fine-sony-sanyo-panasonic-battery-units-price-cartel/#.WQxrK1KB2qA

2. European Union, ‘Environmental Impacts of Batteries for Low Carbon Technologies Compared.’

3. By asking what it would mean if a battery could give life, Mary Shelley encourages readers to ironize Victor Frankenstein and the novel itself, and move in the direction of skepticism rather than belief. See Richard Sha, ‘Volta's Battery, Animal Electricity, and Frankenstein,’ 21-41.

4. Except during the world wars, when telegraphic equipment and flashlights would depend on storage batteries. Larger 50 volt nickel-iron batteries would power electronics of the deadly German V1 (the flying bomb) and V2 rockets.

5. Samuel Thomas von Soemmering in 1805 had constructed a telegraph that utilized the principles of electrolysis. It consisted of a voltaic pile, a transmitting and a receiving instrument, which were both inscribed with the twenty-five-letter alphabet (minus J), each with its own wire. See Siegfried Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media, 182; According to Kittler, the electric telegraph, optimised on the basis of letter frequency and charged by the number of words, was the first step on the road to information technology. See Friedrich Kittler, “The History of Communication Media.”

6. ‘Ritter proved that the chemical process produced the electrical charge and thus combined galvanism with voltaic physics in electrochemistry.’ See Siegfried Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media, 172.

7. However it was found that the Grove cell discharged poisonous nitric dioxide gas and large telegraph offices were filled with gas from rows of hissing Grove batteries.

8. According to Schallenberg (1982), during the ‘battle of the systems’ alternating current systems without batteries would eventually dominate direct current systems with batteries.

9. The National Institute of Standards and Technology formalized the alphabet nomenclature that is still used today in around 1917. See Isidor Buchmann, ‘A Look at Cell Formats and how to Build a good Battery.’

10. Lithium was discovered in the early 1800’s by a Swedish scientist Johan August Arfwedson in Petalite, a lithium bearing ore.

11. According to Eisler, ‘the notebook computer battery crisis emerged at a time when electronics engineers were struggling to understand the implications of microprocessor scaling (miniaturization) on the operation of mobile computing systems, especially power demand.’ Eisler, ‘Exploding the Black Box,’ 370.

12. Lithium polymer electrolyte (LPE) battery also called plastic Li-ion (PLiON).

13. The precedent for this can be found in the six volt Polapulse battery in Polaroid cameras that consisted of four wafer-thin Leclanche cells. See Lateral Science: http://lateralscience.blogspot.de/2015/02/the-polapulse-battery.html

14. Usually six to nine batteries fit into a laptop battery pack in various combinations to provide 19 volts.

15. Eisler says that, ‘packing more transistors together and increasing chip frequency generated heat, boosting voltage and power consumption, a phenomenon that the semiconductor industry seems to have been aware of as early as the mid- 1990s.’

16. European Union, ‘Environmental Impacts of Batteries for Low Carbon Technologies Compared.’

17. According to the Credit Suisse Global Equity and Credit Research team, lithium carbonate demand will rise from about 200 kilotons (kt) today to over 500 kt in 2025. Global storage capacity currently stands at about 250 MW and is expected to grow to 14,000 MW by 2023. Given the rapid rise in battery demand, a shortage in the supply for lithium, graphite and cobalt is expected. We can imagine that by another decade the Salar would become one mega supra-national extraction zone. Available at: https://www.credit-suisse.com/articles/news-and-expertise/2016/11/en/beneficiaries-of-the-electric-vehicle-boom.html

18. A mere 2.3 Kelvin rise in polar temperatures can effectively trigger a climatic catastrophe. Soon, solar reflectivity falls, ocean temperatures rise, high levels of humidity occur. Once atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration becomes sufficiently high amid rapid heat gains, planet Earth is set on course for a Thermal Runaway event. Entire oceans will vaporize and all planetary life exterminated. See Colin Goldblatt and Andrew J. Watson, ‘The Runaway Greenhouse: Implications for Future Climate Change, Geoengineering and Planetary Atmospheres,’ 4197-4216.

19. Josh Horwitz, Samsung finally explained what caused the Galaxy Note 7 explosions; The negative electrode components in the upper-right corner of the battery deflected, leading to a short circuit, Samsung said. In the second case, Batteries malfunctioned due to manufacturing issues. During welding, bumps formed that poked through barriers in the battery and made direct contact with the negative electrode.

20. United Nations University, ‘StEP launches interactive World E-Waste map.’

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