Batteries not required. Batteries not required

Universal Waste

EPA’s universal waste regulations streamline the hazardous waste management standards for certain categories of hazardous waste that are commonly generated by a wide variety of establishments. The streamlined regulations:

  • promote the collection and recycling of universal waste,
  • ease the regulatory burden on retail stores and other generators that wish to collect these wastes and transporters of these wastes, and
  • encourage the development of municipal and commercial programs to reduce the quantity of these wastes going to municipal solid waste landfills or combustors.

The federal universal waste regulations are found in Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) in part 273 and apply to five types of universal waste:

  • Batteries
  • Pesticides
  • Mercury-Containing Equipment
  • Lamps
  • Aerosol Cans

View EPA’s comparison tables for a summary of the main universal waste requirements for generators and transporters and the similarities and differences between the universal waste and hazardous waste requirements.

There are also four types of regulated participants in the universal waste system:

  • Small quantity handlers of universal waste ,
  • Large quantity handlers of universal waste ,
  • Universal waste transporters and,
  • Universal waste destination facilities.

In general, materials managed as universal waste can be stored for a year and are not required to be shipped with a manifest. In addition, universal wastes do not need to be counted toward a generator’s category (i.e. very small quantity generator, small quantity generator, or large quantity generator). The universal waste regulations do require that the materials be managed in a way that prevents releases to the environment. The requirements are tailored to each specific type of universal waste and differ for small quantity handlers and large quantity handlers. Finally, the standards also include a labeling requirem, a requirement to respond to releases, and to a facility that is permitted or otherwise designated for receiving hazardous waste, like a recycler.

  • Check out Chapter 3 of the RCRA Orientation Manual for a summary of the universal waste program
  • Read through frequent questions about universal waste
  • View the 1995 final rule (PDF) (60 pp, 780 K, About PDF) that established the universal waste program (60 Federal Register 25492)
  • View the 1999 final rule (PDF) (25 pp, 262 K, About PDF) that added hazardous waste lamps to the universal waste program (64 FR 36466)
  • View the 2005 final rule (PDF) (16 pp, 253 K, About PDF) that added mercury containing equipment (which encompasses thermostats) to the universal waste program (70 FR 45508)
  • View the 2019 final rule (PDF) (19 pp, 369 K, About PDF) that added aerosol cans to the universal waste program (84 FR 67202)
  • Universal Waste Glossary of Regulatory Terms

Types of Federal Universal Waste

The federal regulations identify five specific categories of materials that can be managed as universal wastes: batteries, pesticides, mercury-containing equipment, lamps and aerosol cans. The part 273 regulations define the type of materials that fall under the universal waste categories and specify in what situations that material can be considered a universal waste.

Click on each of the materials below to learn more about each universal waste category:


40 CFR section 273.9 defines a battery as a device consisting of one or more electrically connected electrochemical cells which is designed to receive, store, and deliver electric energy. An electrochemical cell is a system consisting of an anode, cathode, and an electrolyte, plus such connections (electrical and mechanical) as may be needed to allow the cell to deliver or receive electrical energy. The term battery also includes an intact, unbroken battery from which the electrolyte has been removed.

Some batteries meet the above definition but are not universal wastes. These include spent lead-acid batteries that are being managed under the requirements of 40 CFR part 266 subpart G; batteries that are not waste because they have not been discarded; and batteries that are not hazardous waste. See 40 CFR section 273.2 for more information about universal waste batteries.


40 CFR part 273.9 defines a pesticide as any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling, or mitigating any pest, or intended for use as a plant regulator, defoliant, or desiccant, with the exception of any that is (a) a new animal drug under FFDCA section 201(w), or (b) an animal drug that has been determined by regulation of the Secretary of Health and Human Services not to be a new animal drug, or (c) an animal feed under FFDCA section 201(x) that bears or contains any substances described by either (a) or (b).

The universal waste regulations can be used to manage pesticides that have been recalled if they are either stocks of a suspended and canceled pesticide that are part of a voluntary or mandatory recall under FIFRA Section 19(b) (including, but not limited to those owned by the registrant responsible for conducting the recall) or if they are stocks of a suspended or canceled pesticide, or a pesticide that is not in compliance with FIFRA, that are part of a voluntary recall by the registrant. Universal waste can also be used to manage stocks of other unused pesticide products that are collected and managed as part of a waste pesticide collection program.

  • A recalled pesticide becomes a waste on the first date upon which both of the following conditions apply: (i) the generator of the recalled pesticide agrees to participate in the recall; and (ii) the person conducting the recall decides to discard the recalled materials (e.g., burn the pesticide for energy recovery).
  • Note that the universal waste requirements apply only in the situation of a recall, suspension, or cancellation described above or when collected as part of a waste pesticide collection program. Hazardous waste pesticides that do not fit into these categories must be managed under the requirements in parts 260 through 272 or in compliance with 40 CFR 262.70, which addresses pesticides disposed on a farmer’s own farm in a manner consistent with the disposal instructions on the label when the container is triple rinsed.
  • The universal waste requirements do not apply to pesticides that are not wastes or are not hazardous wastes

Mercury-Containing Equipment

40 CFR part 273.9 defines mercury-containing equipment as a device or part of a device (including thermostats, but excluding batteries and lamps) that contains elemental mercury integral to its function.

Some mercury-containing equipment meets the above definition but is not universal waste. These include equipment or devices from which the mercury-containing components have been removed; mercury-containing equipment that is not waste because it has not been discarded; and mercury-containing equipment that is not hazardous waste. See 40 CFR section 273.4 for more information about universal waste mercury-containing equipment.


40 CFR part 273.9 defines a lamp as the bulb or tube portion of an electric lighting device. A lamp is specifically designed to produce radiant energy most often in the ultraviolet, visible, and infra-red regions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Examples of common universal waste electric lamps include, but are not limited to, fluorescent, high intensity discharge, neon, mercury vapor, high pressure sodium, and metal halide lamps.

Lamps that are not waste because they have not been discarded or that are not hazardous waste are not universal wastes. See 40 CFR 273.5 for more information about universal waste lamps, as well as the resources below:

Aerosol Cans

40 CFR section 273.9 defines an aerosol can as a non-refillable receptacle containing a gas compressed, liquefied, or dissolved under pressure, the sole purpose of which is to expel a liquid, paste, or powder and fitted with a self-closing release device allowing the contents to be ejected by the gas.

Aerosol cans frequently contain flammable propellants such as propane or butane which can cause the aerosol can to demonstrate the hazardous characteristic for ignitability, and may also be a hazardous waste for other reasons when discarded. Aerosol cans that do not exhibit a hazardous waste characteristic in 40 CFR part 261 subpart C or contain a substance listed as hazardous waste in 40 CFR part 261 subpart D are not hazardous waste and therefore are not universal waste. In addition, aerosol cans that meet the definition of empty in 40 CFR 261.7 are also not universal wastes.

U.S. State Universal Waste Programs

Adopting the Federal Program

The universal waste regulations can vary from state to state in the United States. The majority of states have adopted the full federal universal waste program, however, others have only adopted some of the federal universal wastes. A state does not have to include all of the federal universal wastes when they adopt the universal waste regulations. If a state doesn’t adopt a certain universal waste and the waste meets the definition of a hazardous waste, then it must be managed under the applicable hazardous waste regulations in that state. Learn more about state adoption and universal waste.

State-Specific Universal Wastes

Additionally, states may add additional universal wastes to the state’s universal waste program. A more detailed list of state-specific universal wastes and more information about state additions are available on our U.S. State Universal Waste Programs Web page.

Materials Classified as Universal Waste in Some States

Corresponding State

New Hampshire, Rhode Island

Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island

Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey

Paint and Paint-Related Wastes

Solar Panels/Photovoltaic Modules

Note: The list above is not comprehensive.

  • Hazardous Waste Home
  • Learn the Basics of Hazardous Waste
  • Hazardous Waste Management
  • Generation
  • Identification
  • Definition of Solid Waste
  • Exclusions
  • Characterization
  • Delistings
  • Transportation
  • Permitting
  • Requirements for Importers
  • Requirements for Exporters
  • Recycling
  • Cleanups


In 1881, Professor Silvanus Thompson, a physics lecturer at the University of Bristol applauded the development of accumulators (secondary batteries) and suggested that they offered a gateway to the future of railway transportation, demolition, telephony, wind/water power utilization, and lighting.[1] For Thompson, batteries were the obvious “next step,” or energy transition, in the expansion of electrical production and usage. His support for batteries drew on his (and others’) concerns over energy waste, the limited mobility imposed by electrical grids. abstractly, he also critiqued engineers for failing to apply existing and promising scientific theory, a notion shared by several Victorian electrical specialists.[2]

than a century later, in May 2015, Elon Musk used a similar argument while unveiling Tesla’s Powerwall©, a rechargeable battery his company designed to supply the average American home’s electric power consumption.[3] Consider the following video, in which Musk presents the “battery for the future” and critiques existing electric power production methods for their reliance on a wasteful (environmentally destructive), overly centralized, and outdated infrastructure:

The parallels between Thompson’s and Musk’s enthusiasm for batteries is fascinating all by itself. What is perhaps more interesting, though, is the way that both of them challenge the routine dismissal of batteries as failed or inadequate technologies in the context of electric power production infrastructure.[4] When it comes to questions of success and failure, the history of the battery is tricky. This article examines this “history of failure” in order to show that failure, if it occurs at all, is not with battery but with the expectations of the battery in early and modern electric infrastructures.

Generally speaking, users consider technological failures are as definitive moments when one technology or system does not perform properly, or when it is replaced by something newer, and presumably, better.[5] It sounds easy. But historians of technology have shown that these so-called “failures” may not be quite as straightforward as popular commentators or innovators seem to think. Technologies may fail in one context and then succeed somewhere completely different. Components of a failed technology may reappear in completely new systems. Repeated failures may not discourage those deeply convinced of a technology’s value; continued development may make a technology finally work.[6] Despite the stigma surrounding failed technologies, moments when technologies don’t, or no longer work, attract a lot of scholarly and public interest, as people attempt to narrate a clean story of success and failure, endings and beginnings. Yet, excitement over new technologies, and fascination with relics tend to blind us to technologies which fail to meet expectations, yet persist in filling a meaningful role; technologies that, despite certain successes, remain secondary.

Batteries: Future or Failure?

The story of the battery, particularly the battery intended to store electric power, illustrates how a technology can be both a success and a failure. People have lost faith in batteries several times over the past century and a half, and yet batteries have not disappeared. On the contrary, batteries became and remain an essential auxiliary source of electric power in both large-and small-scale technologies. Batteries have never lived up to the potential that their makers envisioned, and yet inventors such as Musk continue to embrace the possibilities of greatly expanded dependence on batteries. A good question to ask then, is where exactly is the failure of the battery located? Is it just in the battery itself, its design, or the limits of the natural world? Or is it in the wider system in which batteries are incorporated? I argue that rather than thinking of the batteries individually, we need to think about them in the context of larger systems.

The utility of batteries for the storage of electric power has occupied the minds of electrical philosophers, tinkerers, and scientists for nearly two centuries. In 1799, Alessandro Volta (1745-1827) built the first electrochemical battery, or pile. Famously, in 1831 Michael Faraday (1791-1867) developed the first electrochemical battery in an experiment to demonstrate electromagnetism. By the 1860s, batteries, or accumulators, had garnered increasing attention, especially among electrical specialists (scientists and engineers) in Great Britain and France. John Frederic Daniell (1790-1845), Gaston Plante (1834-1899), and Camille Alphonse Faure (1840-1898) all developed ways to store more electric power for longer periods of time. In addition, battery technology became increasingly integrated into existing technological infrastructures, such as telegraph networks, where batteries helped sustain better telegraph signals. Still, the expense of batteries prohibited large scale production at that time, or at least deterred the will to try. Yet, that did not stop some scientists and engineers from hypothesizing, if not fantasizing, about the potential of batteries for expanding the use of electric power in society. Academic and popular journals rhapsodized over the wonders batteries might hold.[7] (See figures 1 and 2).

This well-known engraving captures the combination of wonder, curiosity, and anxiety people felt about electricity in late-nineteenth century Britain as a potential replacement of existing prime movers, like steam and coal. “What will he grow to?” Punch 1881, June 25, 295.

Thompson’s configuration of a Plante cell. In this diagram, he demonstrated how to recharge the larger, main cell. Silvanus Thompson, “The Storage of Electricity,” Journal of the Society of Arts, November 25, 1881, 38.

For example, Silvanus Thompson, published frequently on batteries in the Telegraphic Journal and Electrical Review and in publications of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Thompson offered some of his liveliest praise of the battery in a paper published in the wake of the 1881 Paris Exhibition of Electricity—an event in which electrical scientists and engineers demonstrated numerous technologies, such as lighthouses, street light systems, communication technologies.

An electric lighting demonstration at the exhibition. “The Exhibition in Paris,” The Electrician, December 3, 1881, 42

Thompson expressed great interest in accumulators like the Faure and Plante Cells, which he considered as representative of the power production of the future. He was particularly enamored of the “Eclipse” Battery, invented by Henry I. Harris.[8] To him these technologies represented the power production of the future. Thompson extolled the Eclipse’s 13-hour charge, which he projected would be useful for electric lighting and possibly even the powering of street cars. He also believed that that secondary batteries could be used to provide lighting in trains, and that those batteries could be recharged continuously by the action of a dynamo applied to the turning motion of the train’s wheels. He even suggested that batteries could be used in military applications like torpedoes, as the decrease in battery sizes could make room for more explosives.

batteries, required

One of his most powerful examples however, emphasized the use of secondary batteries in connection with wind and water power installations, promising, in his view, an “endless supply” of electrical energy. In a discussion on tidal power he said, “Accumulators are a necessary feature in any scheme to utilize the intermittent force of the tides. Whether the present form will prove adequate for the purpose the future must decide.”[9] He was not the only one who dreamed about continuous electricity production using a combination of wind or water and batteries. For example, James Blyth (1839-1906), an engineer and inventor developed wind turbines that used secondary batteries to store electric power.

James Blyth’s “battery-charging” turbine, which was built at his holiday estate in Marykirk c. 1891.

It is easy to dismiss Thompson’s lecture as fanciful thinking and categorize the inventions he lists as no more than clever ideas. After all, few of them were ultimately integrated into the developing electrical infrastructure. What is worth noticing however, is not just Thompson’s dreams for batteries, but his wider vision of the systems of electricity production in which batteries were just one part a vision shared with other electrical experts of the time.[10] He was also a noted critic of the monopolization of electric power supply companies.[11] Thompson proposed an electrical infrastructure that depended on much less on centralized power stations than those that ultimately triumphed. Thompson’s idealized electric streetcars would be able to go places far from the urban centers of power production, and showed Thompsons’ priority of both mobility, and decentralized living. Likewise both he and Blyth advocated developing wind and water power in ways that would not require centralized power grids. The batteries imagined by advocates did not have to produce megawatts of electricity to be meaningful.[12]

As hydro-power and fossil fuel systems developed, even many of the early-battery proponents came to see batteries as too expensive. Silvanus Thompson’s positive opinions about batteries received a fair amount of attention in other journals of the day; those critical of the battery’s practicality targeted him particularly.[13] For instance, one author deriding the expenses of batteries argued:

Professor Silvanus[sic] Thompson says “there is money in it,” but even he would not like to pay such a price for a primary battery, and take the risk of recouping himself by the ordinary course of commercial operations.[14]

In subsequent reviews, electrical specialists derided Thompson’s speculations about the battery as “such balderdash.”[15] One reviewer, under the nom de plume, “In Darkness” argued that Thompson ignored the realities of existing battery technologies. Even if they were useful for small lighting set ups, to think they might one day power cable cars was utter nonsense. Whereas others who supported the implementation worried about how much power was wasted in battery storage. This was a major critique offered by William Thomson (after 1892 Lord Kelvin), who was initially supportive of applying battery technologies more widely. By the late 1890s, even he dismissed batteries as ineffectual for the developing grid because of their great expense. [16] Turbines like the Parson’s steam turbine, had proven extremely effective in generating electricity and, for many, showed far more promise.[17]

It was not simply that batteries cost too much to make. The hesitation also came from the cost and risk associated with either reconfiguring systems to include batteries or completely replacing existing structures.[18] Cities had already adopted the model of centralized systems, which worked well both technologically and for business interests, and the introduction of electricity made it easier to adapt electrical systems to existing utilities than to reimagine them altogether.[19] For instance, electricity could be used in water distribution facilities, or power line construction could follow gas lines. Following established utilities, rather than starting from scratch was particularly valuable for those hoping to adapt electricity to manufacturing.[20] Thus, implementing batteries demanded more than just working batteries. It also required people to rethink how they might organize the provision of utilities – a much bigger problem.

Despite such dismissals of the battery’s potential, research and speculation on the battery did not come to a halt. In fact, numerous electric power projects centered on battery technology, such as the Rapid development of the electric car.[21] Still, batteries continued to be surrounded by an aura of failure and to be associated with a rhetoric of expense and impracticality. Battery development continued, but not in the general production of electricity. Instead they thrived when multi-purpose functions for controlling electric currents, or portable electric supplies were needed.[22]

Batteries came to be associated simultaneously with failure, and immense promise. Even though there was continued discussion of battery’s failures, others consistently added the “future battery” to their speculative sociotechnical visions of times to come. They were often centerpieces in the futures of William Morris and H. G. Wells, and they feature just as prominently in the marketing hyperbole of the modern green energy industry.[23] Thus, as we look at contemporary aspirations for the battery, we need to be aware of the ways our expectations are predicated on one particular model of electric power supply, that of centralized power stations.

“Back to the Future”

Looking through recent technology talks, expos, and magazines which explore energy, climate change, poverty, and global development, one would be hard pressed to find the presence of something about the potential of batteries to “solve our problems” unless it fits into the model of a centralized grid. In the past few decades, particularly since the fuel shortage in the 1970s, the storage of electrochemical power has been a bottleneck in the automotive and personal computing industries. Those industries have responded with a slew of developments and products such as fuel cells, zero-emission vehicles, and increased battery life on mobile devices. Still, there is a sense that these systems are wanting, and that they are often too expensive or impractical to implement on a large-scale.

To solve our problems of energy supply and sustainability, we have to start thinking not just of weakness of batteries as components in existing systems, but of ways we might want to reconfigure the systems themselves. To portray the battery as the “missing piece” is to misunderstand the nature of the problem. Branding the battery this way creates impossible expectations that perpetuate both the burdens of continued failure and the deferral of hope to an unspecified time in the future. We have clear ideas about where batteries are essential, such as in hand held devices or spaces where we are forced to be “disconnected.” But we also have ideas about where batteries are not suitable, such as factories or city power stations. The advent of larger batteries has not been enough to challenge this division of labor, as the constant increase in electric power consumption makes relying on existing infrastructures the quickest solution.[24]

It is easy to dismiss batteries as a failure, as many of Thompson’s peers did, and Musk’s still do. Today, just as then, this is an error. The failure is not “in” the battery. Instead, it is in its incompatibility with a system of centralized electric power production. But could reconfiguring our own ideas about how best to create and distribute electricity provide us with a different answer? What aspects of energy production and consumption practices ought we be thinking about changing? With these questions, we can begin both to appreciate how closely our energy infrastructures are tied to our cultural, economic, and political habits, and to consider how to tackle the difficult task of energy transition.

Nathan Kapoor is a PhD candidate at the University of Oklahoma. His dissertation investigates the relationship between empire and electrification in New Zealand during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Suggested Readings

Eisler, Matthew. Overpotential: Fuel Cells, Futurism, and the Making of a Power Panacea. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2012.

Salkind, Alvin J., ed. Proceedings of the Symposium on History of Battery Technology. Pennington, NJ: Electrochemical Society, 1987.

batteries, required


“Electro-motive Power.” The Edinburgh Review, January 1882: 58.

“Electric Light and Force.” The Eclectic Magazine, 34 (882): 315.

“Examination Papers.” The Telegraphic Journal and Electrical Review, 21:504 (July 22, 1887): 73-74.

“The Eclipse Battery.” Telegraphic Journal and Electrical Review, August 5, 1887: 146.

“The Johnson Storage Battery.” The Telegraphic Journal and Electrical Review, October 17, 1890: 446.

“Electricity and Manufacture.” Electricity and Power 5:55 (1893), 132.

“Proceedings of the Northern Society for Electrical Engineers.” Telegraphic Journal and Electrical Review, 37:943 (December 20, 1895): 811.

Ball, Robert S. Natural Sources of Power. New York: D. Van Nostrand and Company, 1908.

Blyth, James. “On the Application of Wind Power to the Production of Electric Currents.” Proceedings of the Royal Scottish Society of Arts, January 25, 1892: 173-181.

Curry, Helen. “Industrial Evolution: Mechanical and Biological Innovation at the General Electric Research Laboratory.” Technology and Culture 54:4 (2013): 746-781.

Davies, Alex. “Elon Musk’s Grand Plan to Power the World with Batteries.” Wired, May 1, 2015. Accessed June 16, 2017.

Eisler, Matthew. Overpotential: Fuel Cells, Futurism, and the Making of a Power Panacea. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2012.

Epstein, L. “Twenty-Five Years Progress in Secondary Batteries.” Telegraphic Journal and Electrical Review, November 12, 1897: 632.

Ewing, J. A. “Abstract Report on Trials of Parson’s Condensing Steam Turbine.” The Electrical Engineer, November 11, 1892: 482-483.

Gold, Barri J. Thermopoetics: Energy in Victorian Literature and Science. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2010.

Gooday, Graeme. “Rewriting the ‘Book of Blots’: Critical Reflections on Histories of Technological ‘Failure.’” History and Technology 14:2 (1998): 265-291.

Greer, Henry Recent Wonders in Electricity, Electric Lighting, Magnetism, Telegraphy, and Telephony. New York: N.Y. Agent College of Engineering, 1883.

Hillyard, W. K. and Newnes, G. “Great Britain Patent: 7500-Apparatus for utilising wind pressure to induce electricity, and for other purposes”, May 9, 1885. Telegraphic Journal and Electrical Review 16, (1885): 477.

Hintz, Eric S. “Portable Power: Inventor Samuel Ruben and the Birth of Duracell.” Technology and Culture 50: (2009), 24-57.

Jones, Christopher. Routes of Power: Energy in Modern America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.

Kirsch, David A. The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2000.

Lipartito, Kenneth. “Picturephone and the Information Age: The Social Meaning of Failure.” Technology and Culture 44:1 (2003): 50-81.

Malm, Andreas, “Fleeing the Flowing Commons: Robert Thom, Water Reservoir Schemes, and the Shift to Steam Power in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain.” Environmental History 19:1 (2014): 55-77.

Marsden, Ben. “Blowing Hot and Cold: Reports and Retorts on the Status of the Air-Engine as Success or Failure.” History of Science 36:4 (1998): 373–420.

Martin, Richard. “Tesla-SolarCity Success Depends on Battery Technology That Doesn’t Yet Exist.” The MIT Technology Review, June 26, 2016. Accessed June 16, 2017.

McCray, Patrick. “What Makes a Failure? Designing a New National Telescope, 1975-1984.” Technology and Culture 42:2 (2001): 265-291.

Robinson, Henry and Nursey, Perry F. “Primary Batteries for Illuminating Purposes.” Journal for the Society of Engineers, November 7, 1887: 203.

Salkind, Alvin J., ed. Proceedings of the Symposium on History of Battery Technology. Pennington, NJ: Electrochemical Society, 1987.

Sheible, Albert. “The Problem of Heat Cells,” The Electrical Engineer, June 27, 1890: 505.

Siemens, C. W., “Presidential Address.” Telegraphic Journal and Electrical Review 11 (1882): 146.

Snell, C. Scott. “The Sea–source of Power,” Telegraphic Journal and Electrical Review 11 (1882): 454-455.

Thompson, Silvanus P. “Storage of Electricity.” The Electrician 8:2 (1881): 22-55

Thomson, Sir William, “Address to the Mathematical and Physical Science Section of the British Association.” The Chemical New and Physical Sciences Journal 44, no. 138 (1881), 135-137.

Tomory, Leslie. “London’s Water Supply before 1800 and the Roots of the Networked City.” Technology and Culture 56:3 (2015): 704-37.

Wolff, Alfred R. The Windmill: As a Prime Mover. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1894.

[1] Silvanus is also spelled Sylvanus in some primary and secondary sources. I have opted to use the spelling “Silvanus” on the recommendation of Graeme Gooday. Thompson, “Storage of Electricity,” 22-55.

[2] Blyth, “On the Application of Wind Power to the Production of Electric Currents,” 173-181; Thomson, “Address to the Mathematical and Physical Science Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science,” 135-137; Snell. “The Sea–source of Power,” 454-455.

[3] Davies, “Elon Musk’s Grand Plan to Power the World with Batteries.”

[4] Martin, “Tesla-SolarCity Success Depends on Battery Technology That Doesn’t Yet Exist.”

[5] McCray, “What Makes a Failure?”, 266.

[6] For more on “failed” technology literature see: Lipartito, “Picturephone and the Information Age.” Other works include Marsden, “Blowing Hot and Cold;” Gooday, “Rewriting the ‘Book of;” Mara Fjaestad, “Fast Breeder Reactors in Sweden;” Curry, “Industrial Evolution.”.

[8] We only know this figure, Henry I. Harris, from a patent and citation. Other biographical information appears not to be available. Robinson and Nursey, “Primary Batteries for Illuminating Purposes,” 203.

[10] For many improved batteries opened the potential for different ways to generate electric power: Wolff, The Windmill; Siemens, C. W., “Presidential Address,” 146; Hillyard, W. K. and Newnes, G. “Great Britain Patent,” 477; Ball, Natural Sources of Power.

[11] “Proceedings of the Northern Society for Electrical Engineers,” 811.

[12] Greer, Recent Wonders, 17-18.

[13] The following periodical references contain discussion of Thompson’s work with batteries: “Electric Light and Force,” 315; “The Johnson Storage Battery,” 446.

[16] Epstein, “Twenty-Five Years Progress in Secondary Batteries,” 632.

[17] Ewing, “Abstract Report on Trials of Parson’s Condensing Steam Turbine,” 482-483.

[18] Albert Scheible. “The Problem of Heat Cells,” 505. For other works covering the difficulties in other energy system changes, see Andreas Malm “Fleeing the Flowing Commons”; Christopher Jones, Routes of Power.

[19] Tomory, “London’s Water Supply before 1800 and the Roots of the Networked City,” 704-707.

[20] “Electricity and Manufacture,” Electricity and Power, 132.

[21] Kirsch, The Electric Vehicle, 4-5.

[22] Eric Hintz, “Portable Power,” 26-27; Eisler, Overpotential, 20-21

[23] Gold, Thermopoetics, 13-14; Salkind, ed. Proceedings of the Symposium on History of Battery Technology; Hintz, “Portable Power.”.”


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Gigaprofits: batteries not included

Do cell manufacturers actually make any money? If you enjoy this newsletter, give us a share and subscribe!

“batteries are a bad business: low margin, capital intensive, dirty and hemmed in by hard physical limits on technological progress.”

  • The majority of gigafactories are reporting thin margins in the 1-3% range, with top-tier players able to reach 8-10%.
  • Economies of scale bear out in the gross profit data, as a 100x in scale (revenue) leads to ~6x in profitability.
  • CATL’s dominance continues, reaching 47B USD in revenue, capturing 30% of the EV battery market.
  • BYD, Tesla, and CATL lead RD spending with ~1B USD each, ~5% of revenue.

Digging into financial statements

We can learn a lot about publicly-traded battery producers as they are obligated to regularly disclose financial performance.

Below we compare some metrics of 16 public gigafactories around the world, using data accessed from Yahoo Finance on 2023-03-25 :

  • 9 Chinese gigafactories (○): BYD, CALB, CATL, CBAK, EVE Energy, Farasis, Gotion, Microvast, Sunwoda
  • 3 Korean gigafactories (♢): LG Energy Solutions, Samsung SDI, SK Innovation
  • 1 Japanese gigafactory (△): Panasonic
  • 1 American gigafactory (□): Tesla
  • 1 European gigafactory (▷): Freyr
  • 1 Canadian gigafactory (◃): Electrovaya

Tips on how to interpret the plots below and raw data can be found at the bottom of this article.

Gigafactory revenues to the moon

Fig. 1 shows the revenue growth trends in these companies. For companies that have been around since the early 2000s, we can see that there have been periods of fluctuation.

However, starting ~2018 and more so from 2020 onwards, public cell manufacturers have scaled significantly in both production and sales — following the growth of the EV segment. This is especially the case for tier 1 producers like CATL, LG Energy Solutions, and Samsung SDI.

The top plot also illustrates the meteoric rise of Tesla throughout the years, while larger conglomerates with diverse businesses such as Panasonic and SK Innovation have had a more steady performance, which may be the motivation for them to spin out their battery divisions into individual companies (LG Chem → LGES, SKI → SK On). BYD also just announced 2022 figures. 4x-ing profits on their EV business.

We can then use the same year range to look at other metrics:

The bottom line: net profitability

Net profit is the amount of money a company makes after subtracting all of its expenses (direct production costs, rent, utilities, marketing costs, depreciation, amortization etc) from its total revenue. The net profit margin, comparatively, tells us the relative profitability, as a percentage of the total revenue generated.

From the top of Fig. 2 we can see that, for the 12 battery manufacturers with positive profit and revenue, as they have grown over time, so have their net profits.

The majority of cell manufacturers have a net profit margin in the 2-3% range. Pureplay gigafactories CATL, EVE, and Samsung SDI have higher margins in the 8-10% region.

Companies tend to trade profit margins for revenue on an individual basis, (for example Sunwoda, BYD, Gotion), perhaps reflecting the price competitiveness between these large high-tier cell producers.

Gross profitability: production costs only

Gross profit tells us how much a company earns after subtracting just the “cost of goods sold” (COGS) from their sales. COGS includes raw materials, labor, and manufacturing costs but omits rent, utilities, taxes, and marketing expenses. The gross profit margin then can be used as a comparative indicator of a company’s efficiency in producing and selling its products.

Notably, economies of scale appear across companies in Fig. 3 (bot) via the weak positive trend between gross margins and revenue. Companies in the 100M USD revenue realm have margins of ~5% while companies in the 10B USD range get closer to 30%.

Market share: more batteries, more revenue

SNE Research provides us with the market share of the top 10 global EV battery manufacturers. Fig. 3 shows that for pureplay gigafactories, generally, a higher market share leads to higher sales and hence higher revenue. This makes sense.

What’s interesting is that smaller pure-play factories such as CALB, Gotion, EVE, and Sunwoda have similar EV market shares but drastically different revenues. This is likely due to manufacturers selling to different market segments, perhaps consumer electronics and grid storage applications.

RD budgets: who’s spending on innovation?

Financials spent on RD is crucial for new product development and for staying competitive in the industry. This includes spending on wages for research staff, equipment, materials, and the cost of intellectual property generation.

From Fig. 5 (top), we can see that generally, RD budgets increase as revenue increases. The top companies like BYD, Tesla, and CATL are spending some 1B USD each on innovation.

As a fraction of revenue, Fig. 5 (bot), we see that RD generally makes up a larger proportion of a company’s expenditure during the early days, before stratifying into 3 categories:

  • Higher RD spend (~20%): Lower-tier producers Electrovaya and Microvast
  • Lower RD spend (~0.5%): Korean giants LG Energy Solutions, and SK Innovation
  • Mid RD spend (~5%): Everyone else

We should note here that differences in RD spending may not actually reflect differences in strategy, and that accounting treatment may also play a role. Companies may decide to place RD expenses as line items under COGS or another category to skew certain metrics in their income statement.

Debt-to-capital: degree of leverage

The debt-to-capital ratio tells us how much of a company’s available capital (including equity) is in the form of debt. Raising debt may allow companies to finance growth and expand in a manner that may be unavailable using internal resources alone.

In Fig. 6 there is (a messy) trend where companies may rely on larger proportions of debt during earlier growth stages. This decreased reliance on debt as capitalization increase is atypical as most businesses observe stable leverage ratios.

We could speculate why it appears that the gigafactory lifecycle typically starts with debt and is progressively reduced: is this indicative of the typical borrowing for greenfield development, followed by higher cash generation used to pay down the debt? Do gigafactories gain access to more equity funding as they scale?

The most leveraged company currently is Sunwoda. Overall, a higher degree of leverage may signify more exposure to the risks of downturns. Electrovaya is not plotted here as it currently has a negative total capitalization.

Thanks for reading!

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General notes on plot interpretation:

  • Plot marker shapes correspond to the country of origin for the gigafactory.
  • The largest plot marker represents the metric for the latest year (usually 2023 or 2022).
  • The trailing markers represent historical yearly values and the lines connect them in chronological order.
  • As log scales are often used, vertical lines correspond to transitions (for example in profitability) between negative values, which are cut off by the log scale, and positive values.
  • We indicate non “pureplay” cell manufacturers with a for companies that also make EVs like BYD/Tesla and a (^) for larger conglomerates, like Panasonic, where batteries are only a subset of the larger business.
  • As companies are listed on international stock exchanges, we used approximate 5-year-averaged exchange rates to normalize to USD: CNY(0.15), KRW(0.0008), EUR(1.1), CAD(0.75), HKD(0.128), JPY(0.009).
  • Raw financial data used to generate the analyses below can be accessed at this repository.

Kilowatt. Batteries Not Included

‘A friendly alien visits Earth, exploring it’s new surroundings’. This shot is based off of the 1987 film ‘Batteries Not Included’. My first year final VFX project, featuring the 3D character of ‘Kilowatt’ as he visits an environment similar to that of the film.

Kilowatt. Batteries Not Included

For this project I was tasked with creating an updated shot from the 1987 film ‘Batteries Not Included’. The goal was to create a similar shot to one of the shots in the movie but re-create it with modern Visual Effects practices.

In order to do this I first had to pick a character from the film and design them in 3D software. I would then follow the VFX production pipeline in order to integrate the final CG character with live action footage.

This is my final VFX sequence with the chosen character of Kilowatt, composited onto a live-action background plate I found. Everything in this shot was done by me except for the filmed plate. Including the model, texture, rig, animation, lighting, render, 3D track, rotoscoping and multi-pass composite.

Kilowatt. Breakdown

Below will be a breakdown of the key steps I took whilst creating my project. In order to create this shot, I worked through the entire pipeline process; from researching references, modelling in Maya, creating UVs in Maya. texturing in Substance Painter, rigging and animating in Maya and rendering with Arnold Renderer. 3D Tracking, rotoscoping, compositing and additional adjustments were all made using Nuke X.

Turntable showing off a breakdown of some of the passes used when creating my final character composite.

Look at the model after being textured in substance painter and some of the details of the character sculpt.

Multi-pass renders of my model. Showing the RGBA, Diffuse, Specular, Emission and ID passes.

SketchFab of my model to have an interactive look around and see the topology.

Hope you enjoyed my breakdown of Kilowatt. This was my first ever 3D character and also my first time completing the entire VFX pipeline. I really learnt so much from this process and I am very proud of my final results. I know that there is lots to improve on and will be hard at work to produce more fun projects like this one. Any feedback would be really appreciated, thanks for looking through this post.

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