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High-Tech Battery Research Comes With Ethical Dilemmas

Experimental batteries are tested at UC San Diego nanoengineering professor Shirley Meng's lab in an undated photo.
UC San Diego
Experimental batteries are tested at UC San Diego nanoengineering professor Shirley Meng's lab in an undated photo.
High-Tech Battery Research Comes With Ethical Dilemmas
Hi-Tech Battery Research Comes With Ethical Dilemmas GUEST: Shirley Meng, nanoengineering professor, UC San Diego

When you think about battery research, ethical issues may not be the first thing to come to mind. But scientists who work with batteries know better.

“Some of the materials used in the batteries, like cobalt, have a lot of child labor issues,” said Shirley Meng, a nanoengineering professor at UC San Diego, referring to the Congo's yearslong practice of using children to mine cobalt. “In cell phones, it is the key element. In electric cars, we’ve been able to reduce it a lot. That was my Ph.D. work, on replacing cobalt. But replacements have lower density, so they can store less energy.”

Meng will address the use of cobalt, the potential for conflicts of interest and other ethical issues Tuesday night at the Fleet Science Center, part of the Center for Ethics in Science and Technology’s series of forums. She said advocates pushing batteries as a source of renewable energy are misrepresenting their capabilities.

"A lot of people really misunderstood the battery as renewable itself," she said. "We just store electrons. We don’t care where they come from. So if the grid is not clean, it doesn’t make a difference. We’re just an enabler."

Meng joins KPBS Midday on Tuesday with a preview.

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