Millions of people around the world own smartphones, tablets and laptop computers, all of which batteries power. Inevitably, as these devices age, their batteries degrade and lose capacity. Nevertheless, even after one grows tired of constantly hunting for the charging cable and decides instead to buy a new one, it turns out that the old battery, the same “dead” battery that will likely end up in your garbage can, just might have some life in it yet. One start-up company has emerged on exactly that premise. With offices in Germany and India, Nunam (which means “for the future” in Sanskrit) repurposes lithium-ion batteries to produce new energy storage systems and provide low-cost power in India. Funding from the Audi Environmental Foundation has recently allowed Nunam to complete a prototype and offer its units for free to street vendors in Bengaluru, India.
Founders Darshan Virupaksha and Prodip Chatterjee met in 2017 when both men were looking to apply their technical backgrounds in ways that could create real social impact. Deciding that energy access was an issue they wanted to tackle, they created their lab in Bengaluru and began testing different types of batteries. Eventually, they settled on the lithium-ion cells that power laptop computers and are easily acquirable from scrap dealers.
Containing several dozen of these “second life” batteries, each of which still possesses at least two-thirds of its original capacity, Nunam’s prototype is smaller than a briefcase. Yet these units provide enough energy for Bengaluru’s street vendors to light their stalls after dark and to charge their cell phones.
Nunam has also developed a different prototype in collaboration with The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), a research organization based in New Delhi that is concerned with energy, the environment and sustainability. This second model comprises electric-vehicle batteries and can provide energy to multiple shops at the same time. One unit inside an electrical shop, for instance, powers another 39 stores in the nearby vicinity. In addition, as the owner of the shop pointed out to The Better India, Nunam’s energy devices are cost-effective. Even for those who cannot pay for electricity, a daily supply of candles can cost upwards of 10 Indian rupees, while Nunam’s unit reaches 40 shops for one-third of the price, thus providing low-cost power in India.
Plus, by reusing batteries to generate electricity, the new devices reduce waste and pollution. Many countries currently recycle less than 5% of lithium-ion batteries; despite their remaining energy capacity, most discarded batteries simply end up in landfills. In a further effort to minimize its environmental impact, Nunan has also developed an app that allows its engineers to keep track of their energy units and to observe the battery cells’ condition. Once Nunam sees that the batteries are nearing the end of their capacity, it retrieves the unit and then recycles the fully depleted batteries.
Addressing Energy Access
Although the company is still in the process of development, its creation of energy storage systems that are both affordable and environmentally friendly has important implications for issues surrounding poverty and energy access. In India, although the government has made enormous strides in expanding the reach of power grids, roughly 2.4% of households do not have access to electricity, with most of these concentrated in rural areas. According to the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), households without electricity pointed most often to their inability to afford the expense, while others were simply beyond power grids’ geographical reach.
Thus, one wonders if Nunam’s cheap, portable units could offer a potential solution for people who lack access to electricity, even if they live in rural settings. At present, the storage systems can power only low-wattage devices for several hours at a time, but before 100% of Indian households undergo electrification, even charging a smartphone or lighting an electric bulb can bring huge benefits. Especially in the latter case, students are able to continue their schoolwork after dark while adults (like how it provides low-cost power in India to the street vendors in Bengaluru) can engage in productive activities to generate income.
Furthermore, Nunam’s founders hope someday to expand their operation within India and in other developing countries. Globally, more than 1 billion people lack access to light, with most living in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. While households must spend valuable time and resources procuring fuel, doctors struggle to treat patients after sunset, and pollution from indoor fires and kerosene lamps causes millions of deaths.
Therefore, by providing low-cost energy and reducing waste and pollution, Nunam’s innovation tackles several of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at once. Since ending global poverty necessitates ending light and energy poverty, too, it will be exciting to watch the start-up strive to live up to the promise of its name: “for the future” indeed.
– Angie Grigsby