Africa leads the charge in tackling battery waste

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The principles of a circular economy increase access to cleaner energy

The key message from COP27 was the importance of supporting the global south as the area continues to suffer the effects of the climate crisis more severely than the global north.

It is well understood that reducing waste is one of the key routes to avoiding an environmental crisis, but as the world transitions to clean energy sources, batteries and energy storage systems are increasingly in demand – and the issue of battery waste runs the risk of negating the positive effects of the clean energy transition.

Dr Amrit Chandan, CEO and co-founder of cleantech firm Aceleron, predicts that the number of batteries that will need to be disposed of by 2040 would fill Wembley Stadium 23 times every single year, with ten times that number already in circulation today.

“The world has a lot to learn from Africa on this subject, as the continent has adopted a number of initiatives that tackle the issue of battery waste whilst increasing access to a reliable, renewable power supply that also helps to improve prospects for entire communities.” says Chandan.

Aceleron has designed and built a unique circular economy battery technology that enables their batteries to be taken apart, down to a single cell, for repair, maintenance and upgrade. In comparison to traditional batteries, where, if one part fails, the entire product goes to waste, this new approach means that a single part can be swapped out for a working or updated replacement and the battery in its entirety can continue to fulfil its purpose.

This serviceable battery model has the power to dramatically reduce battery waste, as well as ensure that the maintenance, servicing and upgrade can be carried out locally, creating jobs and reducing travel emissions at the same time.

Project BATLAB – the first ever containerised battery service hub

The BATLAB, a joint project between Venture Engineering, Total Group, The Shell Foundation and Aceleron is a self-sustaining battery servicing container, powered entirely by solar PV.

It allows for products containing batteries that no longer work to be safely repurposed by trained local labour into battery packs that can be used by the local population to meet their energy needs – from charging a mobile phone to providing lighting or refrigeration. The BATLAB has all the components to build, repair, upgrade and, in some cases, monitor every battery in one place throughout its entire lifecycle. Once the battery finally reaches the end of its useful life, it can be returned to the BATLAB for repurposing or recycling.

This creates jobs, supports livelihoods and provides opportunities to keep the materials used to make batteries in circulation for as long as possible.

The first BATLAB has been deployed in Bidibidi refugee settlement in Uganda, which is run by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), where local staff have been fully trained and supported to handle the batteries safely.

Reida Kiden, who works in the BATLAB in Uganda said: “I am very excited by the BATLAB’s arrival in the Bidibidi settlement and am grateful for the opportunity to work and learn from the team responsible for it. I know it will change lives for the refugees who are based in the camp here in Uganda.”

Chandan adds; “We can see this BATLAB blueprint project becoming a crucial piece of the wider battery puzzle – particularly in emerging markets, where easy access to hi-tech facilities and equipment is limited. This gives it the potential to play a key role in underpinning a wider net zero transition.”

Mobile mini-grids in Kenya

Last year, off-grid communities in Kenya benefited from the successful development and trial of mobile mini-grids that are able to provide power from a centralised power source to whole villages on the days when it is needed most. For instance, the mini-grid can be used to power agricultural equipment such as milling machines ahead of market day, saving on labour and speeding up the crop’s journey from field to market.

The mini-grid project consists of a portable trailer with 10kW of rapidly deployable solar panels and 20kWh of lithium-ion battery storage which can be serviced and maintained on the ground. The project is being delivered jointly by Kenyan social enterprise Chemolex, clean technology company Aceleron and Smart Villages Research Group (SVRG) and has been funded by Innovate UK’s Energy Catalyst programme.

Scalable mini-grids in Sierra Leone

In order to consistently and reliably deliver power to Kukuna Health Centre in Sierra Leone, a new battery bank works with a solar PV system to deliver power no matter the time of day or night. This means that the 15,000 patients the clinic serves will be treated safely and consistently; patients can give birth safely at night, the vaccine cold chain will remain unbroken and staff will have access to the power they need to meet any medical emergencies, 24 hours a day.

The scalable system allows for more batteries to be added over time so, as the community thrives and demand for power naturally increases, it will simply be a matter of adding more batteries to expand the amount of power available at any given time.

The project came to fruition via a partnership between Vittoria Technology, Aceleron and Energicity and was funded by Innovate UK’s Energy Catalyst programme, which also funded the mobile mini-grid initiative in Kenya.

Chandan explains why Africa is spearheading the transition to greener, cleaner and more sustainable energy; “Africa has a large off-grid population and an abundance of solar energy so it makes sense that innovations in battery energy storage are rapidly developing across the continent.

“Many African countries dispose of unwanted batteries using an open-smelting method, which is often the only solution to dealing with the waste. This leads to the emission of toxic materials and carcinogenic smoke which can contaminate the local ecosystem and is harmful to the local people.

“Projects such as these not only increase access to energy, they also increase access to genuinely sustainable, renewable power sources that can work flexibly to meet the different needs of a community, whether that’s to get crops to market before they spoil, provide life saving treatment or improve transport links in rural areas.

“The rest of the world will undoubtedly learn a lot from Africa as it reduces waste and increases access to renewable energy in order to empower communities to prosper and thrive – without relying on outdated and expensive fossil fuels.”