Tuesday, 02 April 2019 10:20

Texas researchers claim way to recycle used lithium-ion batteries

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Rice University research scientist Babu Ganguli and graduate student Kimmai Tran show test tubes with their eutectic solvent and varying concentrations of cobalt drawn into the solution. Rice University research scientist Babu Ganguli and graduate student Kimmai Tran show test tubes with their eutectic solvent and varying concentrations of cobalt drawn into the solution. Jeff Fitlow

Researchers at the private Texas-based Rice University claim they have found a method to recover strategic metals like cobalt from the large number of used lithium-ion batteries from electric vehicles, mobile phones and other electronic devices.

Pulickel Ajayan, a scientist at Rice's lab of materials, used an environmentally friendly deep eutectic solvent to extract valuable elements from the metal oxides commonly used as cathodes in lithium-ion batteries, according to a statement from the university.

A deep eutectic solvent is made by mixing two or more compounds and freezes at temperatures much lower than each of its components. One could literally obtain a liquid from a simple combination of solids.

Researchers said they aimed to curtail the use of harsh processes to recycle batteries and keep them out of landfills.

The solvent, made of choline chloride and ethylene glycol, both commodity products, extracted more than 90% of cobalt from powdered compounds, and a smaller but still significant amount from used batteries.

“Rechargeable battery waste, particularly from lithium-ion batteries, will become an increasingly menacing environmental challenge in the future as the demand for these through their usage in electric vehicles and other gadgets increases dramatically,” said Ajayan.

“It’s important to recover strategic metals like cobalt that are limited in supply and are critical for the performance of these energy-storage devices.

“Something to learn from our present situation with plastics is that it is the right time to have a comprehensive strategy for recycling the growing volume of battery waste.”

“This has been attempted before with acids,” said Rice graduate student and lead author Kimmai Tran. “They’re effective, but they’re corrosive and not eco-friendly. As a whole, recycling lithium-ion batteries is typically expensive and a risk to workers.”

Other processes that have been tried also had drawbacks: pyrometallurgy involves crushing and mixing at very high temperatures, and the harmful fumes require scrubbing. Hydrometallurgy needs caustic chemicals, while other “green” solvents that extract metal ions often need additional agents or high-temperature processes to fully capture them.

“The nice thing about this deep eutectic solvent is that it can dissolve a wide variety of metal oxides,” Tran said. “It’s literally made of a chicken feed additive and a common plastic precursor that, when mixed together at room temperature, form a clear, relatively nontoxic solution that has effective solvating properties.”

A paper about the research has been published in Nature Energy.

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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