Batteries have already upended the energy paradigm of the 21st century. What’s next?

Energy is like magic—most of us don’t understand where it comes from or how it works. But it is essential to almost everything we do—from checking the time to photographing distant galaxies; without the ability to capture energy, we’d be lost.

After a century of oil dependence, our society is beginning to shift from burning fossil fuels to energy generated by renewables. For this to work the world will need storage devices, and lithium batteries are the best resource we have for storage. Instead of repeating the flawed energy model we built during peak oil, lithium offers the world an opportunity to reimagine its relationship to energy and natural resources.

But like oil, lithium dependence comes with human, environmental, and geopolitical consequences. On one side of the world a historically impoverished country sits on top of the world’s largest lithium resources. On the other side, a billionaire is building the world’s largest lithium battery factory. And in another corner, China, the world’s largest e-waste receiver is reimagining its relationship to electronic waste.

Batteries have a long way to go before they're truly a green technology—mining and extraction takes a tremendous amount of energy, and we have yet to come up with a sustainable solution for the millions of end-of-life batteries that end up in landfills. But if the battery industry can get this right—from mining, to manufacturing, to recycling—the implications would be profound. South America’s poorest country could reverse 500 years of exploitation by taking ownership of its natural resources; improved storage devices could allow us to power cities through energy produced through wind, hydro, solar, natural gas, and nuclear energy. And China could turn their immense piles of electronic waste into urban mines, full of reusable materials that slow our dependence on non-renewable natural resources.

Lithium-ion batteries have already upended the old energy paradigm. But the solution to our energy demands is not only the advent of a better battery, the answer must include a humane and environmentally responsible approach to mining, manufacturing, and waste—otherwise we’re no better off than we used to be.

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