Batteries and their life on our planet

Batteries are an important thing in our everyday lives. We could not watch TV without them. But where do they come from? What are the ingredients? Who invented batteries and how? How and where can you recycle your batteries the right way? How does the lifecycle look like? These are some questions which we wanted to answer for you throughout our research.

Daily use
3500 batteries per year are produced in Switzerland. Batteries are special waste products and have to be disposed in the right way. However, just 60% of all batteries are disposed correctly. Actually, you can bring your batteries back in every shop where you can buy them. It is regulated by our law. There are over 12’000 collection points in Switzerland.

1780 Luigi Galvani prepared one leg and connected it with a copper and an iron plate, which were as well connected. As a result, he could saw a contraction of a frog’s leg. Without knowing, he created a circuit. Anyway, he was not able to make any insights out of this experiment, he just thought the energy might came out of the leg.

Alessandro Volta was an Italian physicist, he repeated Galvani’s experiment with the frog’s leg. Volta discovered that the frog leg was just a detector and not a condenser as Galvani tough. 1798 he built a pillar out of copper and zinc plates. Between each plat, he put a textile, which he before soaked in hydrochloric acid. He named the construction the “voltaic pile”. Volta worked with the French government and got support from Napoleon Bonaparte.1

The first batterie for a mass production was created in 1802 by the chemist Dr. William Cruickshank. He put the plates out of copper and zinc into a box out of wood. The box was sealed up with cement.

In 1859 the French physicist Gaston Plané made some new realisations. He used circuit boards diluted in sulfuric acid, which led to the first chargeable battery. These batteries with of lead-acid base, are still used today. Due to the industrialisation, the development of the batteries became faster and faster. The industrial production of batteries started in 1880, when Emile Alphonse Fauré developed a process to recharge batteries very fast to a high performance.2

1 Batteryfacts History Volta
2 Wiki Voltaic pile

Raw materials and ingredients
We set the focus on alkaline batteries. In an alkaline battery, the cylinder that contains the cells is made of nickel-plated steel. It is lined with a separator that divides the cathode from the anode and is made of either layered paper or a porous synthetic material. The canister is sealed at one end with an asphalt or epoxy sealant that underlies a steel plate, and at the other with a brass nail driven through the cylinder. This nail is welded to a metal end cap and passed through an exterior plastic seal. Inside the cylinder, the cathode consists of a mixture of manganese dioxide, graphite, and a potassium hydroxide solution; the anode comprises zinc powder and a potassium hydroxide electrolyte.3

Construction of a battery:

The container of a typical alkaline battery, consisting of preform inserted into a steel can, also doubles as the cathode. The anode in the middle is a gel composed primarily of zinc powder. The separator between the anode and cathode is either paper or synthetic fiber that has been soaked in an electrolyte solution.
In the finished battery, a plastic seal, a steel nail, and a metal top and bottom have been added. The nail is welded to the metal bottom and extends about two-thirds of the way into the can, through the anode.

  • Valuable ingredients: Zinc, iron, aluminium, lithium, silver
  • Dangerous ingredients: Nickel, manganese dioxide, lithium and electrolytes from potassium hydroxide solution and sulfuric acid
  • Toxic ingredients: Mercury (Hg), cadmium (Cd), lead (Pb)4

3 Madehow Battery
4 Wiki Alkaline Battery

Every battery can be recycled in a shop which also sells them. Unfortunately, only 60% of all batteries are recycled the right way. Even in our survey which we have done in our class nobody has recycled their batteries the right way. The whole recycling process is financed through a disposal fee. The fee is already calculated in the sales price and depends on the size of the battery. In addition, it finances the correct disposal, collection, transport, reconstruction of the valuable substances and the information of the trade and population. Recycling protects our environment from harmful materials. Also we are committed from the Swiss law to recycle our batteries since they are special waste products.5

Recycling process
The people bring their used batteries back to a collection point. These batteries are transported to the only swiss company which is specialized on the disposal of special waste especially batteries and quicksilver the Batrec Industrie AG in Wimmis. The employees there first sort the batteries after their chemical composition and take away the foreign substances. After this they are going to pyrolyzed to 700°C. In this process the water and quicksilver are evaporating. The other organic ingredients like carton and paper are carbonized (“verkohlt”). The exhaust gases are cleaned wet chemical with circulation water and are frozen down to 4°C. The solid materials are washed away and the quicksilver is condensed. The mud which is produced will be processed in the quicksilver distillation. Metallic substances melt in a oven with a temperature of 1500°C. Iron and manganese stay in there and built ferromanganese. Zink evaporates but is won back in the zinc condenser. This substances can now be used for other things. Waste water is cleaned from heavy metals and is brought back to the canalization. Now we know that not every part of the batteries can be recycled.6

The Inobat logo

Tipps for handling
Batteries lose a lot of energy. The best way to store them is somewhere between 0°C and 10°C like for example the fridge. This way you can extend the life of your batteries. Also you should always use the same type of battery and do not mix different ones together. Lithium-batteries cannot be charged up again. In the worst case they could explode if you try this.5

5 inobat
6 swissrecycling

We have learned a lot of interesting things about batteries throughout our research. Especially the recycling was a very informative topic, because we did not know how the process works. Also it is nice to know what kind of history is behind the batteries. There are a lot of different kinds and it was very hard to decide on one to write about the ingredients. The contribution to this website was challenging because it is a topic with a wide range of information. We tried to sum it up for you so that you have the most important facts in this post.

Larissa K., Valerio R., Slavica M.

☷ See the project teams here »
☵ Some words about the contributions »

One thought on “Batteries and their life on our planet

  1. Dear Batterie Team
    Nice post! Very good structured with the beginning and the history 🙂 It\’s a pity that only 60% of all People in Switzerland recycle their batteries or hand it back, doesn\’t even cost anything.

    Thank you and have a nice day! 🙂

    Your Tire Team
    Lukas, Claudia & Ladina

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *