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Will Alkaline Batteries Ever Be Fully Extinct?

Technologies come and go. It is the nature of things. Some technologies quickly rise to the forefront before fading just as quickly. Others have a longer shelf life. Still others seem to linger for inordinate amounts of time. Take the disposable alkaline battery. Will it ever be fully extinct? That depends on who you ask.

Pale Blue Earth is a Park City, Utah company that sells state-of-the-art USB rechargeable batteries. Their batteries are built on lithium-ion technology. Take a look at their website and you will see the company is on a mission to eliminate alkaline batteries from the market. It is a noble goal and one well worth pursuing. But will they succeed?

The company cites incandescent light bulbs and plastic straws as examples of previous successes among those with similar mindsets. But truth be told, neither item is truly extinct. Incandescent light bulbs are still available in all but three states. And as for plastic straws, you can still find them in grocery stores, pharmacies, and discount dollar stores.

Batteries Are Big Business

It is always important to look at the money aspect when you’re talking about eliminating technology. No doubt batteries are big business. Just in the alkaline category alone, tens of millions of units are produced and sold every year. That is a lot of batteries.

Getting rid of disposable alkaline batteries would require manufacturers to give customers a suitable replacement. That replacement exists in lithium-ion batteries. Yet there’s a problem: the perception of cost.

At the cash register, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries can cost up to four times as much. That represents significant sticker shock to a lot of consumers. It doesn’t really matter that doing the math proves lithium-ion batteries are cheaper. Perception is what matters, and people perceive lithium-ion batteries as being too expensive.

Not Always the Best Choice

Getting rid of alkaline batteries rests in the ability to provide suitable alternatives. Again, rechargeable batteries are already available. And yet, they are not always the best choice. There are certain applications for which rechargeable batteries just don’t get the job done.

A professional-grade digital camera puts a heavy load on batteries. Back in the days when NiCad and NiMH batteries were the only rechargeable choices, professional photographers warned their amateur counterparts to stick with alkalines. Rechargeable batteries drained too quickly to make them practical.

Not much has changed on the NiCad and NiMH fronts. Moreover, some professional photographers are still reluctant to use lithium-ion batteries despite their higher density and stable discharge rate. Disposable alkalines have proven themselves worthy of digital photography. You would be hard-pressed to convince some photographers otherwise.

Elimination by Government Mandate

Getting back to the comments on the Pale Blue Earth website, there is something else to consider: the only reason old-style incandescent light bulbs are hard to find in this country is because the government stepped in and intervened. In the absence of a government mandate, manufacturers would have continued making and selling what their customers wanted.

You could make the same case with plastic straws. Yes, they are hard to find in states that have limited use or indeed, completely banned their use. But in other states, they are as prolific as ever. What’s the common thread here? Government action.

Disposable alkaline batteries may someday be fully extinct. But there is a good chance that getting rid of them completely is going to require government intervention. If left to free markets, the likelihood of alkaline batteries still hanging around 50 years from now are pretty high. Fewer people will use them, but they will still be out there. At least that is one man’s opinion.

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