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From Trash to Treasure: Turning Plastic Bags into Battery Anodes

Turning an environmental nuisance into a potential energy solution – now, that’s innovation!

After much trial and error, Argonne Scholar Vilas Pol has fig- ured out a way to convert those pesky plastic grocery bags into carbon nanotubes, which could be used as components of lithium-ion batteries for many applications, including cars.

Plastic bags have taken over the grocery market since they were introduced more than 30 years ago. Billions of them are used around the world each year. The bags are recyclable, but a majority of them still end up in landfills.

“They take hundreds of years to decompose,” said Pol.

The bags are made of polyethylene, which is non-biodegrad- able and made from nonrenewable resources (crude oil and natural gas). They are one of the most challenging items for the recycling industry to manage.

Pol’s groundbreaking process involves heating the plastic bags in a reactor with a cobalt catalyst to 700° C and then allowing it to cool. He found that the chemical bonds within the plas- tic completely break down, causing the carbon in the plastic to grow as nanotubes (cylindrical carbon molecules) on the cobalt particles.

These nanotubes can be used as anode material in advanced batteries such as lithium-ion (and eventually lithium-air) batteries.

“We have used the as-prepared cobalt-encapsulated nano- tubes as an anode material for lithium-ion batteries and they work fantastically,” said Pol. “The specific capacity of these carbon nanotubes is higher than commercial nanotubes.”

The Argonne-developed technology is one of the cheapest and most environmentally-friendly ways to grow nanotubes yet to be discovered.

Plastic bags are burned in a vessel at high temperatures (above) until carbon nanotubes are formed as seen in the vial (below).

The method could potentially result in less-expensive batter- ies, while reducing the amount of waste going into landfills. The technology can also be applied to other plastic products including water bottles, another notorious environmental nuisance.

The process is now available for licensing to potential industry partners.

Funding for this project was provided by Argonne’s Center for Electrical Energy Storage: Tailored Interfaces, an Energy Fron- tier Research Center funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Basic Energy Sciences.

For more information, contact Vilas Pol pol@anl.gov


watch the YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q17Bd6t0MHI




Summer 2010

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