When researchers at Purdue University began setting up their new laboratory, they started to receive shipment after shipment of supplies that were packed in boxes filled with lots of soft, cushiony packing peanuts to protect the equipment during shipping.
With all of those packing peanuts on hand after unboxing their gear, the idea was raised to try to find something useful that could be done with them all instead of throwing them away.
That simple idea led to ongoing experiments that are being conducted to reuse the packing peanuts and convert them into materials that can be used to create and build new lithium-ion batteries that can be used in portable devices such as smartphones.
The project at Purdue was featured in a March 22 report by the Phys.org news service.
"We were getting a lot of packing peanuts while setting up our new lab," Vinodkumar Etacheri, a Purdue postdoctoral research associate, told Phys.org. "Professor Vilas Pol suggested a pathway to do something useful with these peanuts," and the research was born.
The experiments so far are showing how the packing peanuts can be converted into high-performance carbon electrodes for rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that improve upon the conventional graphite electrodes presently used in such batteries, according to the story. At the same time, by reusing the peanuts, an environmental disposal problem is also alleviated.
"Although packing peanuts are used worldwide as a perfect solution for shipping, they are notoriously difficult to break down, and only about 10 percent are recycled," Pol told Phys.org. "Due to their low density, huge containers are required for transportation and shipment to a recycler, which is expensive and does not provide much profit on investment."
Using the packing peanuts, which are made of polystyrene or starch-based substances, the researchers have been learning to manufacture carbon-nanoparticle and microsheet anodes, which can be used to build batteries, the article reported. A battery has two electrodes: an anode and a cathode.
Lithium-ions are held in a liquid in a battery called an electrolyte, and those ions are stored in the anode during recharging, according to the report. The new anodes created from the packing peanuts can charge faster and deliver higher specific capacity compared to commercially available graphite anodes, Pol told Phys.org.
The Purdue researchers are presenting their findings at the 249th American Chemical Society National Meeting & Exposition in Denver, which is being held March 22 to 26. The work was performed by Etacheri, Pol and undergraduate chemical engineering student Chulgi Nathan Hong, according to the report.
To reuse the packing peanuts in the experiments, they are heated between 500 and 900 degrees Celsius in a furnace under inert atmosphere in the presence or absence of a transition metal salt catalyst, according to the researchers. The resulting material is then used for the production of the improved anodes.
"The process is inexpensive, environmentally benign and potentially practical for large-scale manufacturing," Etacheri told Phys.org. "Microscopic and spectroscopic analyses proved the microstructures and morphologies responsible for superior electrochemical performances are preserved after many charge-discharge cycles."
So far, the carbon anodes made from the packing peanuts have been able to store a maximum specific capacity of 420mAh per gram, which is higher than the theoretical 372mAh per gram capacity of traditional graphite used in such batteries, the article reported.
Battery power for mobile and other devices is often a topic of frustration and innovation for consumers and researchers. An October 2014 report by ABI Research concluded that battery technology continues to lag behind the development of the devices they are meant to power, according to an earlier eWEEK report. The ABI report stated that the installed base of mobile devices, including smartphones, basic mobile phones, wearables, tablets and notebooks, will reach 8 billion by 2019, and has the potential to drive a huge market for rechargeable batteries and charging solutions.
With all of those devices and demands by consumers, battery life continues to be a large frustration for many users who expect and want longer battery life from their devices, the study reported.