When a typical smartphone is abandoned for a newer, shinier model–on average, about 18 months after someone buys it–it usually has plenty of battery life left. But if the old phone ends up in a drawer, or even if it’s recycled, that power goes to waste. So a clever new device is designed to turn old batteries into something that will actually get used: external battery packs.
“The increasing use of mobile devices has boosted the demand for external batteries,” says Kiyong Shin, founder and CEO of Enlighten, the South Korea-based startup making the new gadget, called Better Re. “And the whole process of lithium mining and battery production, to keep up with this increasing demand, is damaging the environment.”
When someone pops an old battery inside Better Re, it becomes a portable charger for anything that uses a USB cable, from phones to tablets to digital cameras or smart watches. By directly reusing their own old batteries, rather than recycling them, consumers can make better use of the resources inside. Right now, most battery recycling just tries to recover materials like cobalt, but the remaining energy is lost.
Lithium mining has more than doubled since the turn of the millennium, thanks to increasing use in everything from laptops to electric cars. By some estimates, Tesla’s new gigafactory alone could use more than a quarter of the world’s existing supply of the element.
The mining often happens in deserts, but takes vast quantities of water–and relies on toxic chemicals that can end up polluting limited local water sources. And the world’s few suppliers are already struggling to keep up with demand. Enlighten wanted to tap into the neglected supply inside our abandoned electronics.
“Used batteries that still have great quality are being thrown away as replacement cycles for smartphones are getting shorter than ever,” says Shin. In South Korea, the average smartphone is replaced even more quickly than in the U.S., a little over a year after purchase. Even after two years, the battery inside a discarded phone could still have 80% efficiency.
Of course, most smartphone batteries don’t make it to a recycling center as it is. Only 11% of mobile devices are recycled, according to the most recent available statistics. And maybe making something that consumers can actually use ourselves will give us more personal motivation to actually do something, rather than letting phones sit in a closet.