Rechargeable batteries in smartphones, cars and tablets can be charged again and again – but they don’t last forever. Old batteries often wind up in landfills or incinerators – potentially harming the environment – and valuable materials remain locked inside.
Now, a team of researchers is turning to naturally occurring fungi to drive an environmentally friendly recycling process to extract cobalt and lithium from tons of waste batteries.
Demand for lithium
The researchers presented their work this week at the 252nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), which features more than 9,000 presentations on a wide range of science topics.
‘The idea first came from a student who had experience extracting some metals from waste slag left over from smelting operations.
‘We were watching the huge growth in smartphones and all the other products with rechargeable batteries, so we shifted our focus. The demand for lithium is rising rapidly, and it is not sustainable to keep mining new lithium resources.’
JEFFREY A. CUNNINGHAM, PH.D.
Project team leader
Mobile phones, portable music players, laptop computers, tablets and cameras all use rechargeable batteries, with lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries now dominating the market. It’s uncertain that the demand for lithium (Li) and cobalt (Co), required in the form of LiCoO2 for the cathode of Li-ion batteries, can be met by the available supply.
Although a global problem, the US leads the way as the largest generator of electronic waste. It’s unclear how many electronic products are recycled, but many head to a landfill to break down slowly in the environment or go to an incinerator to be burned, generating potentially toxic air emissions.
It’s estimated that by 2030 we’ll be disposing of 30,000 metric tons of Li-ion batteries per year. From the standpoint of environmental sustainability, we need to find a method for recovering Li and Co from spent Li-ion batteries.