Power/Performance Bits: March 24

Unusual energy: packing peanuts in batteries; solar shirt charges phones; discarded PCBs create hydrogen fuel.


Power from packing peanuts

After setting up a new lab, a Purdue University research team was left with a problem: mountains of packing peanuts. Instead of filling bags destined for a dumpster, the team saw an opportunity to find the packing material a useful purpose.

The result was a process to convert waste packing peanuts into high-performance carbon electrodes for rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.

“Although packing peanuts are used worldwide as a perfect solution for shipping, they are notoriously difficult to break down, and only about 10% are recycled,” said Vilas Pol, associate professor of chemical engineering at Purdue. “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.”

Consequently, packing peanuts often end up in landfills where they remain intact for decades.

The team’s method is inexpensive, environmentally benign, and “a very simple, straightforward approach,” Pol said. “Typically, the peanuts 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.”

The resulting material is then processed into anodes which, in testing, seem to outperform conventional graphite electrodes. According to the researchers, the packing-peanut-derived carbon-nanoparticle and microsheet anodes showed long-term stability and are about 10 times thinner than commercial anode particles while exhibiting notably higher lithium-ion storage.

Their work will be presented this week at the American Chemical Society National Meeting & Exposition in Denver.

Power from apparel

A project by Holst Centre, TNO, and fashion designer Pauline van Dongen aims to ensure your smartphone always has juice (and you look stylish while charging it).

Debuting at SXSW in Austin, the Solar Shirt generates power using 120 thin-film solar cells integrated into the fabric. In bright sunlight, it produces around 1W of electricity—enough to charge a typical phone in a few hours. Indoors, the shirt generates enough power to keep its battery charged.

The solar shirt (Source: TNO/Liselotte Fleur)

The solar shirt (Source: TNO/Liselotte Fleur)

The solar cells are combined into standardized functional modules using Holst Centre’s stretchable electronics technology for integrating electronics into fabrics. This technology is part of a research program on wearable applications that integrates textiles and other flexible materials with functionalities ranging from lighting (LED/OLED), energy harvesting (PV), sensors, and displays. The solar cell modules can be mass-manufactured in a cost effective way by roll-to-roll compatible technologies and then incorporated into the fabric using industrial “iron-on” techniques before the garment is stitched.

“Our technology enables extremely thin electronics that are stretchable, flexible and washable,” said Holst Centre’s Margreet de Kok. “It can be integrated into fabrics using standard high-volume techniques that are well known in the textile industry. The maturity of the technology means textile manufactures could bring functional fabrics to market in a matter of months using existing production facilities.”

Power from discarded PCBs

Researchers at the UPV/EHU-University of the Basque Country and the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan developed a system to obtain clean hydrogen fuel from discarded PCBs.

Plastic waste from electronic components is increasing exponentially in advanced countries. However, recycling the boards and recovering valuable metals is a costly endeavor.

During the process, the electronic waste is treated using steam, the metals present in the waste act as a catalyst and under certain conditions gaseous hydrogen is obtained: a fuel that is becoming established but whose main problem lies in storing it. After the process, it was possible to recover the useful metals for reuse.

The gasification of plastic waste can be used on an industrial level and is already deployed in Japan.

Joseba Andoni Salbidegoitia beside the equipment used in the research. (Source: UPV/EHU)

Joseba Andoni Salbidegoitia beside the equipment used in the research. (Source: UPV/EHU)

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