Since the 1980s, lithium batteries have been invented and used by people, but they have not attracted people’s attention. However, with the development of technology and the digitalization of society, lithium batteries have shown their extraordinary power to people. Lithium battery is symbolic as a collection of 21st century time capsules from two aspects. First, as the primary driving energy of digital products, lithium battery symbolizes technology development and society’s digitalization in the 21st century. Secondly, the application of lithium batteries in electric vehicles and the pollution of discarded lithium batteries symbolize people’s concerns and worries about energy depletion and environmental protection.

Lithium Battery by virtualtimecapsule on Sketchfab

Since Swedish chemists discovered lithium in 1817, the position of lithium in people’s daily production and life has become more and more critical (Comer, 1978). However, the value and function of lithium are constantly changing and evolving with the development of human society. During the Cold War, the production of nuclear fusion weapons led to a sharp increase in demand for lithium. From the 1950s to the 1980s, lithium was used to reduce the melting temperature of glass (Comer, 1978). Since the 1990s, with the rapid development of the electronics industry, lithium has been embodied in battery manufacturing mainly.

The appearance of lithium batteries makes people pay more attention to this metal element than ever before. In the 21st century, most mobile phones, laptops and other smart devices that we rely on every day are powered by lithium batteries. In addition, in searching for new clean energy sources that can replace fossil energy sources, lithium batteries used to drive electric vehicles have attracted more attention. However, while people are vigorously producing lithium batteries, the recycling of lithium batteries and the pollution caused by discarded lithium batteries have become another prominent challenge humanity faces.

Lithium battery in the smartphone (Source: Frankie, 2016)

opportunities: lithium battery as green energy

Lithium battery energy storage is the most advantageous and operable scheme in developing energy storage products at present (Divya & Østergaard, 2009). They can store more energy than other batteries with the same volume. Besides, lithium batteries can be charged and discharged quickly, which provides a basis for them to be used as energy storage carriers of renewable energy. Therefore, lithium batteries are also called green batteries.

The use of lithium batteries shows mainly in three aspects. First of all, lithium batteries are used widely in consumer electronic products (Whittingham, 2012). In the 1990s, Sony took the lead in the mass production of lithium batteries, which opened the door to the commercialization of lithium batteries. With the help of the springboard of the kingdom of consumer electronics provided by Sony, lithium batteries quickly show great potential in the manufacturing field as the power resource of the Walkman, tape recorder, video camera, notebook and mobile phone. Until the beginning of the 21st century, 90% of the demand for lithium batteries comes from the field of consumer electronics (Nishi, 2001). Since 2008, with the popularity of smartphones and tablets greatly improved, lithium batteries ushered in another leap in the status of energy storage. Moreover, to ensure a better experience for users, lithium batteries need to have the characteristics of smaller mass, lighter volume, longer battery life and better heat dissipation performance, which also promotes the further development of lithium battery technology.

The development between consumer electronics and lithium batteries is mutually influential and complementary. Consumer electronics products rely on lithium batteries for energy storage and supply. Conversely, lithium batteries also rely on consumer electronics to gain technological progress and social attention. The development of the two has jointly promoted the formation of the digital society in the 21st century. The ways of people’s work, study, communication and entertainment have also changed accordingly.

Secondly, lithium batteries are also an essential part of electric vehicles (Whittingham, 2012). Transportation is an indispensable part of everyday human life, and cars have become one of the crucial ways of human transportation. However, the fossil energy supplied for automobile driving is non-renewable energy, and a large amount of consumption will lead to irreversible resource shortages. The air pollution caused by fossil fuel combustion has always been a worrying problem.

Therefore, people try to use electric energy to solve this problem, causing a wave of electric vehicles in the automobile area (Zeng et al., 2019). Lithium batteries have formed a perfect industrial chain with the vigorous development of new electric vehicles. In the past decade, lithium battery manufacturers worldwide have devoted themselves to automotive lithium batteries. As a result, the lithium battery becomes safer, and its cycle life and charging and discharging ability are also better. Significant changes have taken place in the performance and scale of lithium batteries, which comes from people’s attempts to replace fossil energy with electrical energy. Therefore, lithium batteries symbolize that people’s technology in the 21st century is developing in an environment-friendly direction.

Charging station for electric vehicles (Source: Erik Mclean, 2020)

Last but not least, lithium batteries help people use renewable energy, including wind, solar and tidal energy (Whittingham, 2012). For example, a new power system based on hydropower in China is highly dependent on geographical location and difficult to meet future requirements. However, the flexibility and convenience of lithium batteries can help renewable energy establish a convenient and safe energy storage power system, which can break through some regional limitations of renewable energy.

challenges: lithium battery as metal waste

Although lithium batteries have become an essential catalyst for the new energy revolution, they have also caused environmental and social problems from other aspects, causing troubles for people’s daily life.

On the one hand, the exploitation of lithium metal has caused significant pollution. The abundant lithium resources in Argentina, Chile and Bolivia have not brought a better life to the locals, but trouble to get enough freshwater supply because the extraction of lithium metal needs to consume a vast amount of water (Wanger, 2011). It affects residents’ daily lives who depend on agriculture. Additionally, the exploitation of lithium metal will seriously damage the surrounding ecosystem, and toxic chemicals in lithium mines may also leak into the water supply system, which is highly harmful to the health of local people (Wanger, 2011). In this scenario, lithium batteries also represent that human beings should find a balance between economic and ecological development to guarantee social justice and people’s fundamental rights. Resource exploitation should not be based on sacrificing some people’s health and living standards.

Lithium mining making South Americans life worse (Source: NowThis World, 2017)

On the other hand, the pollution caused by discarded lithium batteries is another severe and thorny problem. Due to the enormous demand for lithium batteries worldwide, it is difficult for discarded lithium batteries to be effectively recycled and disposed of, especially in developing countries that manufacture consumer electronic parts on a large scale. For instance, as one of the largest electronic parts manufacturing countries, China has produced many electronic parts for the world while leaving behind a considerable number of electronic wastes. According to statistics, 50% of the lithium batteries in the world are produced in China, and 70% of the worldwide electronic wastes will eventually be discarded in piles in China every year (CNN, n.d.).Only 2% of these electronic wastes, mainly lithium batteries, can be reasonably recycled (Zeng et al., 2015).

However, the toxic metals released from the remaining 98% of electronic wastes endanger the health of Chinese people in various forms and become one of the most critical social problems. Toxic metals in waste lithium batteries pollute the soil and water, which reduces the output of crops and make people scared to drink water nearby. Moreover, children born there can only live and play games among the garbage piles every day because electronic waste occupies most of their living space (CNN, n.d.).

Therefore, lithium battery also symbolizes that the technology of garbage disposal and the related policies need to be improved urgently. Environmental protection is still a great challenge for people in the 21st century.

Is lithium battery environmental friendly? (Source: Lucas Favre, 2018; Michael Fousert, 2021; Alexander Schimmeck, 2019)


Name: lithium battery

3D Model

Creator: Jiuzhou Zhao

Date: 19-01-2022

Place: Maastricht, Netherlands

Themes: Environmentalism

Captured with Huawei P30

Processed with Agisoft Metashape Professional Software run on Windows 10 (64-bit).


Physical Object

Size: 42×29.5×9.5mm

Weight: 27 gr

Material: Manganese dioxide, lithium metal


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Whittingham, M. S. (2012). History, Evolution, and Future Status of Energy Storage. Proceedings of the IEEE, 100(Special Centennial Issue), 1518–1534.

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Zeng, X., Li, M., Abd El-Hady, D., Alshitari, W., Al-Bogami, A. S., Lu, J., & Amine, K. (2019). Commercialization of Lithium Battery Technologies for Electric Vehicles. Advanced Energy Materials, 9(27), 1900161.