As usual this holiday season millions of kids will be opening gifts that a caring parent must crack open immediately to jam in batteries before the playing can begin. Since its invention in 1800 as the "Voltaic pile" by Alessandro Volta and subsequent dubbing as "the battery" via Ben Franklin, trillions of the tiny chemical powerhouses have been used similarly. And then discarded, to spill their spent chemical loads into the ground. But the reign of the conventional battery is nearly over.
For a start, single-use power cells are giving way to rechargeables, and in terms of environmental impact alone this is revolutionary. Ni-Cad batteries for portable devices were amazing at first, meaning you could carry around a single set of batteries (plus a spare set, if you're fastidious) and recharge them repeatedly anywhere you could find a power socket. Ni-Cads have that life-span limiting memory effect, however, which is why Li-ion and Li-polymer technology is taking over. You still need to take care of how you charge and discharge them, but to all intents and purposes they'll last for ages.
But the chemicals inside rechargeable batteries shouldn't end up in a land-fill either, since they'll leach out eventually and pollute the environment, which is why in many places you'll find battery recycling bins next to those for paper, glass, and aluminum.
And that's why even this technology might be ousted from gadgets soon. There's a replacement waiting in the wings, luckily, in the form of the fuel cell.
Fuel cells are still a chemical way of storing energy for electrical power, but they have a number of advantages. In a battery the electrodes react as the power is cycled, but in a fuel cell the electrodes are catalytic and thus more stable. The real advantage is that once the fuel is used up, the cell's by-products can be totally harmless—in the case of a hydrogen cell, the waste is pure water.
The technology has been in development for decades, but a number of manufacturers, including big players are very soon to bring fuel-celled powered gizmos to market. Canon is looking at fuel-cell powered DSLRs, for example, Panasonic is working on cell-powered laptops, Sony is looking at powering cellphones with the devices. And in a cross-over between current and future battery technology, Mobion should be bringing their methanol-fuel-cell charger for USB devices to market sometime next year. Fuel-cell powered vehicles are also becoming viable as new ways are invented to store the potentially dangerous fuels.
Then there's solar power, which has been studied and exploited for a long time, but is only now approaching efficiencies and low costs that make the tech useful in an everyday sense. Schoolkids have been using solar-powered calculators since I was a boy, and now there are dozens of cheap gadgets you can buy to top-up or fully charge your MP3 players, cellphones and even laptops. And as solar power tech gets cleverer, and now even prettier, it will find its way into more devices: who'd notice if the otherwise "useless" back-plate of your phone was a handy way of charging it up?
Even new-technology wind-up powered devices have made an impact, thanks to devices like Trevor Bayliss' Freeplay wind-up radio for poorer nations.
So will this holiday season be the last you have to buy handfuls of single-use AAs for your kids new toys, and AAAs for remote controls for your new audio-visual gear? Maybe not this one, but possibly the next. Meanwhile, if you want to give your kids a taste of the future, you could do worse than Corgi's H2Go toy: it's a fuel-cell powered toy car.