As consumers demand longer battery life for their essential devices like smartphones, researchers are constantly looking for improvements. Now a group of researchers may have found a surprising way to extend battery life, using those often discarded packing peanuts.
As a group of chemical engineering research students at Purdue University unpacked boxes in their new lab, they wondered if they could find a better use for the polystyrene packing peanuts that they were tossing in the trash. At their professor’s insistence, they found a new use for the discarded material by making it into anodes for lithium-ion batteries.
The students began by heating the packing peanuts to between 500 and 900 degrees Celsius in a furnace, either with or without a transition metal salt catalyst. They then took the material out and processed it into anodes, either carbon-nanoparticle anodes from polystyrene packing peanuts or microsheet anodes from starch-based packing peanuts. In a battery, the anodes are one of two electrode types, and they are used during battery recharging, allowing the charge to flow into the battery.
The researchers say the process of making these packing peanut anodes is cheap, does not harm the environment, and can be scaled up to mass production. Best of all, it provides a use for those packing peanuts which are usually just tossed in the trash after unpacking a box.
According to tests, the packing peanut anodes can charge a battery faster and have about a fifteen percent lower electrical resistance versus the graphite that is usually used to produce anodes. As well, the new anode sheets are thin and porous, which gives better contact between the anodes and the electrolyte solution they rest in. This could potentially provide better batteries for devices that charge quicker and allow batteries to become smaller, leading to smaller, lighter electronic devices.
As part of their research, the team also tested the stability and longevity of their anodes. They cycled the device about three hundred times and still did not see a significant reduction in capacity, making them comparable to the traditional graphite anodes.
The researchers are continuing to improve the performance of their anodes by increasing surface area and pore size, hopefully creating batteries that take on more charge even faster. They also see an application for their anodes in rechargeable sodium-ion batteries, with a few modifications.
The chemical engineering students are hoping their packing peanut technology could create better and cheaper batteries about two years from now. However, the better batteries would not be the only benefit of turning packing peanuts into anodes. Currently only about ten percent of packing peanuts are recycled in the United States, thanks to the high cost of transporting large volumes of the loose peanuts, with the other ninety percent ending up in landfills. Not only does this take up space in the landfill, but the packing peanuts can leach heavy metals and other harmful chemicals into the environment. Even packing peanuts touted as environmentally friendly contain chemicals and detergents that can harm the environment. The researchers envision a program for consumers to send their packing peanuts to factories or recycling centers instead of the landfill. Once there is more profit in recycling the packing peanuts, there would be more incentive to save them from being tossed out.
The next time you feel guilty about tossing out a garbage bag full of packing peanuts, you may have a better solution to this trash problem soon. If all goes well with the research, those packing peanuts could soon be transformed into a better battery for your smartphone or other device.
The research has been published on Phys.org and is set to be presented this week at the American Chemical Society National Meeting and Exposition.