Lithium-ion: a modest proposal

Entia multiplicanda sine necessitate. Lithium-ion batteries are great for digital cameras. They are lightweight, charge quickly, self-discharge relatively slowly, and provide a lot of power on impulse. The problem is that there are too many differentiated types of batteries for the same basic use, which causes waste and difficult disposal.  Given this, the proposal is that manufacturers should form an association (or use an organization like ISO) to standardize battery sizes and voltages (capacities, no, for reasons to be discussed).

1.  Questionable differentiation.  First, there is no reason for there to be hundreds of types and shapes of batteries to fit digital cameras. The batteries themselves start with 3.7V cells, a voltage defined by the basic chemistry.  Other cells start with a chemically fixed voltage too: lithium-manganese disposable battery voltage is 1.8V, silver oxide is 1.55V, alkaline is 1.5V, zinc-air is 1.4V, mercury is 1.35V, and NiMH are 1.2V).  Rechargeable lithium cells come in a number of commoditized sizes and shapes that are combined serially (to raise voltage) or in parallel (to increase current capacity).  The combination is fitted with a printed charge protection circuit and put into a plastic case that is the housing for the battery. Some manufacturers use additional circuitry to transmit detailed charge state information in to the camera (example: Sony’s InfoLithium).
Needless to say, most “proprietary” Li-Ion batteries are still reverse-engineered and sold in generic form within a couple of weeks of a camera’s release. And most of the time, they function well. And all of them charge so similarly that companies like Delkin and Lenmar can make universal Li-Ion chargers that can charge pretty much anything.
Manufacturers explain that their batteries are differentiated due to packaging requirements in digital cameras. When you consider that everything on a digital camera except the space behind the lens can be designed fairly arbitrarily, this statement seems suspect. It seems even more suspect when you consider that even during the late film era, cameras were all built around standard cell types: MS76, AA, CR123A, 2CR5, etc.: buttons, cylinders, or boxes.

The real reason manufacturers differentiate their rechargeable batteries is to make money. Canon doesn’t sell Nikon-compatible batteries, Nikon doesn’t sell Pentax-compatible batteries, and none of them wants you to use knockoffs (and you’ll see why: the OEM batteries cost almost five times as much as generics, despite similar basic manufacturing costs). Sometimes the extra power-management circuitry (like InfoLithium) is provided as a carrot to stay with the “official” battery; sometimes it is used as a stick (as with the Leica M9).

And in fact, when you line a bunch of batteries up, you see that there is really a finite number of sizes.  The list below is not an exhaustive list, but you can see how this really comes down to three voltages and sizes – the MaH capacity really only bears on how long they last and to a lesser degree on instant current capability – but within any one of these bands, one camera is not significantly different from the next:

  • Large SLR: Canon LP-E4, Nikon EN-EL4, 11.1v (these go in cameras that in the days of film would have taken 8xAA batteries)
  • Mid-sized: Fuji NP-W126, Nikon EN-EL3e, Canon DLCE6, 7.4v  (these cameras would have taken two CR123As or a 2CR5 back in the day)
  • Small: Fuji NP-95, Ricoh DB-60 – 3.7v (one CR123A or a CR2).

(There are certainly other permutations of

Within this range, there may not be any reason to differentiate midsized camera from midsized camcorder batteries. And for some applications, removable end caps could fulfill latching or appearance requirements (as they currently do with some Nikon batteries). And as commodity cell capacity vs. size improves, the same batteries could be built with more and more capacity.

2.  Battery waste management and risk. It is very well documented that Li-Ion batteries (a) must be kept at an appropriate storage charge not to lose capacity; (b) only live for a certain number of charges (usually a few hundred); and (c) have a finite life in any event. Sub-optimal use of Li-ion batteries moves there products toward the waste stream faster, and the more batteries a person is trying to juggle, the faster batteries lose capacity and are discarded. In the waste stream, the Li-Ion battery that worked well for 400 full charges or hit its usable life still consists of plastic (landfill life: 1,000 years), lead solder (often present), and power cells that if breached can evolve hydrogen gas and difficult-to-extinguish fires. Oh yes, and there is the “non-toxic” lithium, which is obtained at a price to the environment and a fairly big one to the people who do the work.

If you think Li-Ion batteries are “recycled,” that’s not exactly the case. Electronics “recycling” in the Western Hemisphere often means a toxic waste landfill, en masse shipment to the third world for metal reclamation in unregulated environments, or at best in organized battery recycling facilities, effectively burning the batteries in smelters (see this description). This mitigates environmental impacts, but it uses a lot of energy.

3.  Device death.  It’s one thing for a single battery to become useless and need to be replaced. It’s worse when the end of production for a specialty battery spells the end of a device’s useful life. This has happened quite a bit with older digitals that ran on NiMH cells: it is getting very difficult to keep a Nikon D1, a Kodak DCS760 or a Leica Digital Modul R in (good) batteries now – unless you are into very generic Chinese ones that are now sold at extortionate prices.

4.  Spillover effects. There are a lot of things that could run on Li-ion batteries, if they were standardized and a predictable future supply could be assured. The manufacturer of a $2 flashlight, for example, is not going to engineer a whole new Li-ion battery system to run it. But if a battery with a predictable size and voltage is available off the shelf, it is more likely that the manufacturer would move away from AAs (which only come in three varieties: disposable and not worth recycling, containing nickel that is nasty to mine, and containing cadmium, which is toxic). The same is true for camera flashes, high-drain devices which almost universally run on 6V provided by 4 x AA cells (to say nothing of the fact that a Matsushita division makes most of them anyway). Some things will never be practical for something like  Li-ion or standardized rechargeable batteries (low, constant drain devices; smoke detectors; devices with embedded power sources). But manufacturers should not give up on minimizing disposable (alkaline) battery use.

5.  Inconvenience. Proliferation of battery types leads to clutter.  Imagine the household with a compact camera, a larger DSLR, and an HD camcorder.  Enthusiasts may have more than one of each. It’s not just the batteries – it’s also the proprietary chargers with their cords, both of which cost money to make, take up space in the workplace or home, and represent their own waste streams (AC cords very commonly contain lead solder, for example).

Standardizing on a finite number of physical shapes, sizes, and voltages of Li-ion cells for purposes of basic compatibility would not stifle all competition in the battery arena. With only the shells and the basic standards of compatibility defined, manufacturers would still be free to compete on the basis of capacity (due to the use of newer or different internal cells), power management and camera communication.

In addition to standardization for physical and electrical qualities, the same standards or trade organization setting sizes could also set up and audit basic safety standards. No one wants to think that a $10 generic battery from Ebay will burn the house down, but a certification like CE or UL might make people sleep better while their batteries are charging.

None of this, of course, would come to pass without considerable consumer pressure on manufacturers – something that may never happen in a consumerist society that is just as likely to dispose of the digital camera as its worn-out rechargeable battery. And none of this is to exonerate disposable batteries, although they can be used in multiple devices and only rarely die of neglect.

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