How to reclaim battery metals

Rechargeable lithium ion batteries power our phones and tablets they drive us from A to B in electric vehicles, and have many applications besides. Unfortunately, the devices that they power can fail and the batteries themselves are commonly only usable for two to three years. As such, there are millions batteries that must be recycled. Research published in the International Journal of Energy Technology and Policy describes a new way to extract the lithium and the cobalt that make up the bulk of the metal components of these batteries.

According to Ataur Rahman of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, at the International Islamic University Malaysia and colleague in the Department of Economics, Rafia Afroz, explain that the price of both lithium and cobalt is rising as demand for lithium ion batteries which require both metals for their construction are increasingly in demand. They have investigated a recycling technology that can extract with reasonable efficiency the metals from scrap batteries.

The team’s hydrometallurgical method can recover both cobalt and lithium in their laboratory-scale tests from standard 48.8 Wh lithium batteries. This involves first baking the battery in an oven at 700 Celsius to “calcinate” the cobalt, lithium and copper components to destroy organic compounds, such as plastics and foams. The calcined material carrying metal and metal compounds (salts and oxides) is then treated with strong acid, hydrochloric acid and sulfuric acid, to leach out the metal ions. The team experimented with using hydrogen peroxide as a reducing agent to see whether that reagent would improve the leaching process. They were able to extract the lithium with almost 50 percent efficiency and the cobalt with almost 25 percent efficiency.

Given that each of these metals represent 41% of the weight of a 48.8 Wh battery and 8.5% of the weight, these are useful extraction rates that would on balance, given the heating and acid use, represent a commercially viable approach to recycling the electrodes from such batteries. The leached metals could then be used in the manufacture of new batteries or elsewhere in industry. The contaminated liquid waste could be further treated to make it safe for disposal under recycling regulations.

Rahman, A. and Afroz, R. (2017) ‘Lithium battery recycling management and policy’, Int. J. Energy Technology and Policy, Vol. 13, No. 3, pp.278-291.

Flying with cosmic radiation

Regulations on exposure to cosmic radiation for air passengers and crew exist but the public and air crews generally know very little about the risks, according to a new study published in the International Journal of Sustainable Aviation.

Without the protection of 5 miles of the Earth’s atmosphere above them, air travellers are more exposed to cosmic radiation than those who keep their feet firmly on the ground. There is a problem of accumulation for frequent flyers and air crews. However, despite the fact that regulations on exposure do exist in Europe and elsewhere, the public and air crews themselves are largely unaware of the issue, says Nataša Tomic-Petrovic of the Faculty of Transport and Traffic Engineering, at the University of Belgrade, in Serbia. She has investigated this problem and presented a number of research studies on the risks to flyers associated with exposure to ionizing radiation from solar flares and outer space.

Tomic-Petrovic points out that exposure to ionizing radiation is an important risk factor for the development of cancer as the ionizing effect damages biomolecules. Among those biomolecules is DNA, mutations in which can trigger the uncontrolled cell replication of cancer. Cancer can sometimes result from repeated small doses of radiation of which we are completely unaware in our day to day lives our bodies not having the built in equivalent of a radiation detector. However, the effect of exposure to cosmic radiation on cancer risk is yet to be proven.

“European or worldwide environmental legislation is necessary, but also modern environmental education,” suggests Tomic-Petrovic. “Investments in the knowledge of citizens and informing them of the risks of radiation in aviation, its effects and manner of protection should become the priority for all of us.”
Tomic-Petrovic, N.M. (2016) ‘Radiation in aviation – risks and legal protection’, Int. J. Sustainable Aviation, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp.159–169.

Global energy issues and the nuclear question

An international team of scientists suggests that we must ramp up energy production by nuclear power if we are to succeed in warding off the worst effects of greenhouse gas emissions on climate change. Writing in the International Journal of Global Energy Issues, the team suggests that beginning in 2020 we could achieve an annual electricity output of 20 terawatts without needing to develop carbon dioxide trapping and storage technology for the tens of billions of tons of emissions that would otherwise drive global warming to catastrophic levels.

Herve Nifenecker of the Université interages du Dauphine, in Grenoble, France and honorary chairman of “Sauvons Le Climat” and colleagues in Australia, Austria, Belgium, China, France, India, Singapore, and the USA, explain how solutions to the problem of climate change developed in the wake of requirements established by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) make various assumptions we might not be able to address. One scenario involves attempting to capture and store carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, coal, natural gas, and oil, in power stations and vehicles. However, the quantities involved amount to a massive geological-scale engineering effort even at today’s emission rates based on rising energy requirements.

The team also points out that if we renounce nuclear power as an option, then aside from the storage needs of carbon dioxide emissions, the international demand for electricity will fall short by about 40% over the period 2020 to 2100. It is unlikely that such a scenario will be accepted by developed and developing nations alike. Several large, highly populated nations, such as China and India are forecast to need more and more power over the coming years. The uptake of sustainable, non-carbon alternatives power sources such as wind, solar, tidal and other technologies seem not to be adopted at the requisite rates to keep up with needs and are limited by physical factors such as their random production, despite the best efforts of environmental lobbyists.

“An accelerated development of nuclear electricity production, starting as soon as 2020, would significantly alleviate the constraints required to stabilise global temperatures before 2100,” the team reports. “The carbon dioxide volume to be stored would be divided by at least a factor of 2.5 and might even prove unnecessary. The constraints on the development of expansive and intermittent renewable electricity techniques might also be lessened,” the team adds.

Their research suggests that it should be physically and economically plausible to multiply by a factor of fifty the production of nuclear energy by 2100, leading to a complete elimination of fossil fuels wherein 60% of electricity demand is met through nuclear and the remainder through sustainable technology. Despite tabloid hyperbole surrounding nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima, the long-term health effects of these accidents are negligible compared with the chronic pollution of coal-fired power stations. It might even be said that nuclear energy is the most benign way of producing electricity in terms of environmental health and biodiversity. “Nuclear power could both answer the climate challenge and give a perennial solution to humanity’s energy needs for thousands of years,” the team concludes.

Berger, A., Blees, T., Bréon, F-M., Brook, B.W., Hansen, P., Grover, R.B., Guet, C., Liu, W., Livet, F., Nifenecker, H., Petit, M., Pierre, G., Prévot, H., Richet, S., Safa, H., Salvatores, M., Schneeberger, M. and Zhou, S. (2017) ‘How much can nuclear energy do about global warming?’ Int. J. Global Energy Issues, Vol. 40, Nos. 1/2, pp.43-78