Yeah, you heard me right. I have a bone to pick with Lithium-ion batteries. Actually I have a number of bones to pick, but we’ll get to that.

1) The Form Factor

So here’s the thing. If I have a product that relies on alkaline batteries, it’s very easy to find replacement cells. I can go down to the local grocery store, pick up a pack of AA, AAA, or whatever batteries I need, throw them in, and they’ll work. Or heck, I could get some nice rechargeable NiMH cells and keep using them for hundreds of cycles. Sure they don’t have the capacity of lithium cells, but the point is I can easily find replacements, and due to the standardized form factor, there are already well-established processed for recycling them en masse. The products that they go inside are also designed for the batteries to be replaced, which is a huge bonus for longevity.

If I have a product with a lithium cell in it? Oh boy. First of all, it probably wasn’t designed to be user-serviceable in the first place, so I’ll have to go in with some spudgers, or maybe a hot air gun to try and pry the device open. Some devices make this fairly easy and only require a few screws, while other devices cough apple cough require you to risk destroying the device to access the cell. Once you’re in though, you face two problems: You need a battery with the correct voltage, and the same physical dimensions. I can’t just go down to Tesco and grab the specific battery I need for a PS4 controller or an iPhone. I need to hope that there is some kind of factory that makes the specific shaped battery I need at the correct voltage. And when it comes to recycling? That becomes a mess too. Batteries of all different shapes and sizes and voltages, requiring slow disassembly by hand, and due to their energy density and materials used, it can be a dangerous job.

2) Lifespan

Of course, regular alkaline batteries can only be used once. These suck. NiMH cells though can be used for hundreds of cycles, and in the long run will easily pay for themselves and the charger. Lithium cells also last for hundreds of charges before beginning to degrade, so what’s the difference? Again, it’s being able to replace the battery.

Devices like TV remotes, clocks, anything that uses AA/AAA cells are designed to have their battery replaced. So I don’t really mind if the batteries I got years ago are starting to degrade. I know they can be easily recycled, and I won’t have any trouble procuring some new ones for a low price. With lithium cells? Those devices are more often than not designed to be unserviceable, and sometimes will even refuse to run when plugged in if the battery is cooked! I’ve had phones that refuse to boot even when plugged in, but my Xbox Series controller can run without any AA batteries even inserted when plugged in!

3) The Environment

Does everything need to have a lithium battery in it? Look I get people want convenience, you want your devices to last as long as possible and require as little maintenance as possible. You don’t want to worry about swapping batteries or buying new ones.

But honestly, when those batteries go bad, people often throw them out along with the device it’s inside of. It’s a waste of lithium (which is kinda toxic) and a waste of what is otherwise probably a still perfectly functional device. Wireless earbuds are the worse offenders for this in my opinion, getting used regularly and having their batteries repeatedly drained and filled up to 100%, and being completely unserviceable to all but the most dedicated tinkerers.

With alkaline/NiMH batteries and devices, I know the cells can be easily removed for recycling, and I can keep any devices which uses them going.. well, indefinitely, really.

So, I have a few suggestions. I don’t know how these would be put into practice, but here are some things I’d like to see.

  1. Push more towards AA/AAA usage in devices.
  2. A bigger push towards NiMH usage.
  3. A standardized set of form-factors/voltages for lithium cells in consumer devices that need them.
  4. Replacing a battery should requiring no more than pushing some clips or a standard screwdriver.

I would gladly take a device with a slightly shorter run-time if it means I can replace the battery myself, easily procure new ones, and know they’re not ending up in landfill. I have an Xbox One controller powered by AA cells that is still going strong, but a PS4 controller that barely holds a good charge and is glued together.

I think unless the use case is absolutely justified, manufacturers/product designers should be aiming at using standard AA/AAA cells in their products. Yes I know it’s a big part of selling people more devices, because their old ones don’t hold a charge, but come on.