Here's Why Your Phone Battery Sucks

Besides the daily frustration of running low, there's a lot more to know about those rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.

Storing electricity is hard— you can’t just toss it in a basket or a fanny pack. That’s why Alessandro Volta invented the first battery in 1799, and why, in the age of portable digital devices, batteries have become such a key part of daily life.

Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries power virtually every smartphone and laptop in existence. But lithium-ion batteries can do a lot more than enable your endless doom-scrolling; governments, business, and researchers are betting these batteries will shake up global energy markets and play a key role in helping humanity finally ditch fossil fuels.

Electric passenger vehicles — which already displace demand for more than 1 million barrels of oil per day — are projected to become the single biggest market for lithium-ion batteries over the next 20 years. And enormous, grid-scale batteries could also be a game-changer for renewables like solar and wind, enabling storage at times when it's dark out or there’s no breeze. The implications for the energy sector have kicked off something of a global race: countries including the U.S., South Korea, and China are scrambling to create “superbatteries” that can dominate the coming demand.

But behind the shiny, new technology and green potential, there are profound costs that come with the way we currently make batteries. Extracting and disposing of the metals used in batteries, like lithium and cobalt, can be environmentally devastating, using tremendous amounts of water, tainting natural ecosystems, and even poisoning people in mining communities. And then there’s the whole “batteries exploding” thing: every once in a while, manufacturing defects cause lithium-ion batteries to overheat and blow up, leading to billion-dollar corporate losses, injury, and even death.

In this episode of Complexify, we charged our way into the world of energy storage, powering through the positives and negatives to bring you a view of the current battery game. Here’s what we learned.