An Envirotechnical Approach to Batteries, the Environment, and Questions of Sustainability

ABSTRACT
Introduction

Batteries are currently seen as essential to a new generation of environmentally friendly technologies, such as electric cars and renewable energy systems, but they also have a long history as key components in modern transportation, communication, and electrical systems. This research is organized around a central question: How can social and environmental analysis of the history of battery technologies inform efforts to advance sustainability policy and technology? This project proposes to answer this question by examining three case studies: Lead-acid batteries, alkaline batteries, and lithium-ion batteries.

Intellectual Merit

The history of modern energy systems and their social significance is a central topic in Science, Technology, and Society (STS) research. Most STS scholars have focused on large-scale systems of energy generation and distribution, such as hydroelectricity and fossil fuels, which met the energy demands of modern society. This project highlights a different and often under-addressed set of social, political, and environmental factors related to the life cycles of metals and chemicals important to batteries and the systems in which they are used. This project takes an enviro-technical approach, grounded in environmental history and history of technology, that examines batteries and the systems in which they are embedded as both social and natural. To engage a consumer industry that is global in scope, this project extends that approach conceptually and methodologically by drawing on global commodity chain analysis and industrial ecology.

Potential Broader Impacts

The results of this STS research project will contribute to specific policy discussions, including waste and recycling policy, trans-boundary pollution issues, strategic and conflict mineral sourcing, renewable energy policy, and transportation policy. They will be broadly disseminated to a broad audience including engineers, policymakers, and the general public, interested in the role of technology in advancing a sustainable future. They will be disseminated in multiple ways, including a series of oral histories with individuals involved in the battery industry, policy-relevant research articles, and, with the support of undergraduate research students, public outreach including a website, high-school teaching curricula, and museum presentations.

James Morton Turner, Professor of Environmental Studies, Wellesley College

…(read more).

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