“The idea is to simplify how solar energy is harvested and stored,” says Michael De Volder, a mechanical engineer at the University of Cambridge who led the work. If the team can improve the efficiency and lifetime of the hybrid device, its cost will likely be lower than combining solar cells and batteries. “For the price of a battery, you get both functionalities,” he says.
This low cost could make it suitable for off-grid uses and for regions of the world that lack access to affordable energy.
The workhorse of the new light-rechargeable battery is a cathode made of vanadium pentoxide nanofibers. The material stores lithium ions and also harvests light to generate paired electrons and positive charges, or holes. The researchers mixed the nanofibers with poly(3-hexylthiophene-2,5-diyl) (P3HT) that blocks the movement of holes, and graphene oxide that aids electron transport.”
A glass window on the cathode side of a coin cell allows light to reach the nanofibers. This new device is more efficient than previously developed light-rechargeable batteries and can be recharged for over 200 cycles. Though the efficiency of this battery is still too low for practical use, researchers hope to explore alternatives to vanadium pentoxide to improve efficiency.
“It’s not easy to make a wind turbine blade. Conventional blades require a lot of labor. They are a sandwich composed of fiberglass, sheets of balsa wood and a chemical called an epoxy thermoset resin. A heat oven is required to give blades the proper shape, strength, smoothness and flexibility to catch the wind and turn the turbine.
The new NREL blade uses most of these components, but bonds them together with a thermoplastic resin that can harden and set the blade’s shape at room temperature. It can also be reclaimed at the end of its life by heating it into a liquid resin that can then be reused to make new blades.
That minimizes the waste problem, which became more difficult in Europe after the European Union banned old blades from being dumped in landfills. The new resin is called Elium, and it’s made by Arkema Inc., a French company with offices in King of Prussia, Pa. Arkema is working with NREL to develop the recyclable blade.”
Testing has also suggested the new blade design could have a greater “damping effect,” meaning there would be reduced vibration in the wind during use, and thus, less of the noise nuisance which has been associated with wind turbines. This may also mean reduced stress on the turbine structure resulting in a longer product life.
While this is certainly a promising development, more research is needed before such blades become available for use. Experts at NREL say years of further testing may be required to assure the new blade design is capable of living up to the industry standard of enduring outdoor elements for about 30 years.
As electronics become more ubiquitous each day, the integration of smaller electronic components into ever more products continues, and renewable energy becomes an increasingly popular strategy for addressing climate change, the ability to store and supply power efficiently and safely is all the more important. So it’s no surprise that batteries have been a hot topic in the news for the past month or so. Let’s take a moment to consider some of the highlights of recent battery-related news.
We may as well start with the well-written piece by Geoffrey A. Fowler, the Washington Post’s technology columnist, published today (9/12/18): “The problem with recycling our old tech gadgets: They explode.” This is a good article about how design choices to make electronics thinner and more portable make the recycling of electronics more difficult and dangerous. Specifically because lithium-ion batteries are being incorporated into more products and smaller products, often without an easy–or any–way to remove those batteries. This isn’t just problematic for for extending the useful life of products. The trend makes the recycling of electronics increasingly risky while simultaneously making the economic feasibility of such efforts diminish. Recyclers need more time, special equipment, and training for proper handling, and they are at greater risk of damages caused by fires. As Fowler explains: “For all their benefits at making our devices slim, powerful and easy to recharge, lithium-ion batteries have some big costs. They contain Cobalt, often mined in inhumane circumstances in places like the Congo. And when crushed, punctured, ripped or dropped, lithium-ion batteries can produce what the industry euphemistically calls a “thermal event.” It happens because these batteries short circuit when the super-thin separator between their positive and negative parts gets breached. Remember Samsung’s exploding Note 7 smartphone? That was a lithium-ion thermal event.”
Fowler visits Cascade Asset Management, an electronics scrap processor in Madison, WI, to observe the process of removing a battery from an old iPad before the device can be sent through the shredder for recycling. My take away from this article: products need to be designed not only with sleek aesthetics and portability in mind, but also the ability to easily and safely upgrade, repair, and maintain them during their useful life and then to easily and safely reclaim parts and component materials when they have reached their end of useful life. Fowler concludes “So as a gadget reviewer, let me say this clearly to the tech industry: Give up your thin obsession. We’ll happily take electronics with a little extra junk in the trunk if it means we can easily replace batteries to make them last longer – and feel more confident they won’t end up igniting a recycling inferno.” Do agree with his sentiment? Consider voicing that opinion to the manufacturers of your favorite devices, and if you’re an industrial design student, heed well the lessons you can learn from this article.
As long as we’re on the subject of “thermal events,” consider this interesting research highlighted in this article provided by the American Chemical Society : “These lithium-ion batteries can’t catch fire because they harden on impact.” ‘Lithium-ion batteries commonly used in consumer electronics are notorious for bursting into flame when damaged or improperly packaged. These incidents occasionally have grave consequences, including burns, house fires and at least one plane crash. Inspired by the weird behavior of some liquids that solidify on impact, researchers have developed a practical and inexpensive way to help prevent these fires. They will present their results today at the 256th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS). “In a lithium-ion battery, a thin piece of plastic separates the two electrodes,” Gabriel Veith, Ph.D., says. “If the battery is damaged and the plastic layer fails, the electrodes can come into contact and cause the battery’s liquid electrolyte to catch fire.” To make these batteries safer, some researchers instead use a nonflammable, solid electrolyte. But these solid-state batteries require significant retooling of the current production process, Veith says. As an alternative, his team mixes an additive into the conventional electrolyte to create an impact-resistant electrolyte. It solidifies when hit, preventing the electrodes from touching if the battery is damaged during a fall or crash. If the electrodes don’t touch each other, the battery doesn’t catch fire. Even better, incorporating the additive would require only minor adjustments to the conventional battery manufacturing process…In the future, Veith plans to enhance the system so the part of the battery that’s damaged in a crash would remain solid, while the rest of the battery would go on working. The team is initially aiming for applications such as drone batteries, but they would eventually like to enter the automotive market. They also plan to make a bigger version of the battery, which would be capable of stopping a bullet. That could benefit soldiers, who often carry 20 pounds of body armor and 20 pounds of batteries when they’re on a mission, Veith says. “The battery would function as their armor, and that would lighten the average soldier by about 20 pounds.”
Imagine the day when lithium-ion batteries might be an asset for safety instead of a liability!
Writing for the HOBI International blog, Alicia Cotton recently wrote that “Innovation is making lithium-ion batteries increasingly harder to recycle.” The point of her post was that as demand for lithium-ion batteries increase, manufacturers will look to produce them with cheaper materials, adversely impacting the economic incentives for recycling these batteries. ‘According to the Royal Chemistry Society, the cost of cobalt, which is heavily used as a cathode material in all batteries, jumped from $32,500 to $81,000 in just over a year. In response, battery manufacturers have opted to redesign batteries to minimize cobalt. In May, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said the company had all but eliminated cobalt from batteries it uses in automobile and stationary batteries. However, doing so will help keep batteries cheap — as in too cheap to recycle. Without valuable contents recyclers have little incentive to capture used batteries, Kaun said.‘ This is an interesting example of trade-offs and how considerations for sustainability are rarely simple. The use of cobalt in batteries is problematic not just due to the economic cost of the material, but also due to human rights issues related to cobalt sourcing. However, this article points out that as higher value materials are phased out of design, there is a negative impact on the economics of recycling. More work is clearly needed to create recycling incentives for lithium-ion batteries moving forward, as well as developing batteries which depend less on cobalt, and improving the sustainability of the cobalt supply chain.
In another recent post for the HOBI International blog, Cotton writes that a “New Material will Triple Storage Capacity of Lithium-Ion Batteries.” “Together in a joint effort, scientists from the University of Maryland (UMD), U.S. Army Research Lab and the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) have been working hard to improve the storage capacity of lithium-ion batteries. Turns out, the use of extra cobalt was the answer. The scientists believe they can triple the energy density of lithium-ion battery electrodes.” Well, that would make those batteries not only have higher storage capacity, but also create an incentive for recycling them–but then we’re looking at the issues surrounding cobalt sourcing again. What did I say about trade-offs and how sustainable solutions are rarely simple? Sigh.
And, while we’re on the subject of sustainable solutions coming in shades of grey, here’s an example of how context can be important. As someone who advocates for waste reduction, I often talk about the need for more durable, repairable, upgradable goods and a move away from disposability. I certainly like to encourage people to use rechargeable batteries instead of single-use ones where they can. But there are situations in which disposable goods might actually foster sustainability, and yes, this is even true for batteries. Another recent update from the American Chemical Society discussed “A paper battery powered by bacteria.” Consider remote areas of the world where access to electricity is a luxury, or situation in which a natural disaster or other emergency has occurred leaving an area without access to power. Think about medical devices that would be needed to help victims of a disaster, or just be part of everyday medical support in remote areas. Paper is desirable for biosensors due to its flexibility, portability, high surface area, and inexpensive nature. “Choi and his colleagues at the State University of New York, Binghamton made a paper battery by printing thin layers of metals and other materials onto a paper surface. Then, they placed freeze-dried “exoelectrogens” on the paper. Exoelectrogens are a special type of bacteria that can transfer electrons outside of their cells. The electrons, which are generated when the bacteria make energy for themselves, pass through the cell membrane. They can then make contact with external electrodes and power the battery. To activate the battery, the researchers added water or saliva. Within a couple of minutes, the liquid revived the bacteria, which produced enough electrons to power a light-emitting diode and a calculator…The paper battery, which can be used once and then thrown away, currently has a shelf-life of about four months. Choi is working on conditions to improve the survival and performance of the freeze-dried bacteria, enabling a longer shelf life.“In a related article by Jason Deign for Greentech Media, Choi noted that in these low-power, low-cost situations, the paper battery could be used and then biodegrade without special treatment. Further reporting on this innovation is available in the IEEE Spectrum.
Now that you’ve read about all these innovations and the need for further innovations, you may be thinking, “Can someone please just tell what a lithium-ion battery is, the basics of how they work, and why we use them if there are so many problematic issues?!?!” Don’t worry–a recent post by Arthur Shi on the iFixit blog provides a nice overview with some links to more in-depth explanations if you’re interested.
The International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative (iNEMI) regularly produces industry roadmaps. According to the iNEMI web site, “Each edition is a global collaborative effort that involves many individuals who are leading experts in their respective fields and represent many perspectives on the electronics manufacturing supply chain. Our roadmap has become recognized as an important tool for defining the “state of the art” in the electronics industry as well as identifying emerging and disruptive technologies. It also includes keys to developing future iNEMI projects and setting industry R&D priorities over the next 10 years.”
The latest edition of the iNEMI roadmap will go on sale this month. In preparation, iNEMI is previewing highlights from select chapters in the following two webinars:
Asia (April 6): Internet of Things (IoT) and Packaging & Components Substrates chapters
North America/Europe (April 7): IoT and Sustainable Electronics chapters
The purpose of these webinars is to introduce the 2017 iNEMI Roadmap and identify key issues and needs, collect feedback during the Q & A session for ongoing gap analysis purposes, recruit participation in in the development of the iNEMI Technical Plan, and recruit participation in the next roadmap development cycle. (See http://community.inemi.org/content.asp?contentid=56 for information on the 2015 Technical Plan.)
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recently announced that 13 proposals had been selected for funding as part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, which “invests in transformative architectures through the development of pioneering technologies.” According to the press release, “NIAC Phase I awards are valued at approximately $100,000 for nine months, to support initial definition and analysis of their concepts. If these basic feasibility studies are successful, awardees can apply for Phase II awards, valued up to $500,000 for two additional years of concept development.” Read the full press release on the NASA web site.
“Space missions rely utterly on metallic components, from the spacecraft to electronics. Yet, metals add mass, and electronics have the additional problem of a limited lifespan. Thus, current mission architectures must compensate for replacement. In space, spent electronics are discarded; on earth, there is some recycling but current processes are toxic and environmentally hazardous. Imagine instead an end-to-end recycling of spent electronics at low mass, low cost, room temperature, and in a non-toxic manner. Here, we propose a solution that will not only enhance mission success by decreasing upmass and providing a fresh supply of electronics, but in addition has immediate applications to a serious environmental issue on the Earth. Spent electronics will be used as feedstock to make fresh electronic components, a process we will accomplish with so-called ‘urban biomining’ using synthetically enhanced microbes to bind metals with elemental specificity. To create new electronics, the microbes will be used as ‘bioink’ to print a new IC chip, using plasma jet electronics printing. The plasma jet electronics printing technology will have the potential to use martian atmospheric gas to print and to tailor the electronic and chemical properties of the materials. Our preliminary results have suggested that this process also serves as a purification step to enhance the proportion of metals in the ‘bioink’. The presence of electric field and plasma can ensure printing in microgravity environment while also providing material morphology and electronic structure tunabiity and thus optimization. Here we propose to increase the TRL level of the concept by engineering microbes to dissolve the siliceous matrix in the IC, extract copper from a mixture of metals, and use the microbes as feedstock to print interconnects using mars gas simulant. To assess the ability of this concept to influence mission architecture, we will do an analysis of the infrastructure required to execute this concept on Mars, and additional opportunities it could offer mission design from the biological and printing technologies. In addition, we will do an analysis of the impact of this technology for terrestrial applications addressing in particular environmental concerns and availability of metals.”
Note that “TRL” refers to “Technology Readiness Level,” a measure of the technological maturity of a concept, indicative of the degree to which it has developed beyond the initial faults and unforeseen problems that inevitably arise when something theoretical is brought into practice. NASA TRL definitions help characterize whether a concept is ready for use in space flight during missions or has been “flight proven” as part of successful missions.
Though the idea is geared toward making missions to Mars more practical in terms of the weight of materials needed to pack for missions and dealing with the lack of a local repair shop in the event of a device breakdown, the concept–if successful–could have obvious positive impacts on sustainable electronic product design and responsible management of the ever-growing stream of discarded electronics here on Earth. This could end up becoming one more example of how technology developed to enable space exploration could have benefits to humans in their everyday terrestrial lives. NASA has published an annual accounting of such technologies called “Spinoff” since 1976.
Manuscripts are still being accepted for the special issue of the journal Challenges, entitled “Electronic Waste–Impact, Policy and Green Design.”
From the issue’s rationale:
“Electronics are at the heart of an economic system that has brought many out of poverty and enhanced quality of life. In Western society in particular, our livelihoods, health, safety, and well being are positively impacted by electronics. However, there is growing evidence that our disposal of electronics is causing irreparable damage to the planet and to human health, as well as fueling social conflict and violence.
While global demand for these modern gadgets is increasing, policy to handle the increased volumes of electronic waste has not kept pace. International policy governing safe transfer, disposal, reclamation, and reuse of electronic waste is nonexistent or woefully lacking. Where laws do exist about exporting and importing hazardous waste, they are routinely circumvented and enforcement is spotty at best. While European Union countries lead the way in responsible recycling of electronic and electrical devices under various EU directives, most industrialized nations do not have such policies. In the U.S., for example, most electronic waste is still discarded in landfills or ground up for scrap.
It is imperative that we consider how green design practices can address the growing electronic waste problem. This special issue is meant to do just that and spur discussions on how electronic products can become greener and more sustainable.”
If you are interested in submitting a paper for this special issue, please send a title and short abstract (about 100 words) to the Challenges Editorial Office at email@example.com, indicating the special issue for which it is to be considered. If the proposal is considered appropriate for the issue, you will be asked to submit a full paper. Complete instructions for authors and an online submission form for the completed manuscripts are available on the Challenges web site at http://www.mdpi.com/journal/challenges/special_issues/electronic-waste#info. The deadline for manuscript submissions is December 31, 2015. Questions may be addressed to co-guest editor Joy Scrogum.
We’ve added a “Lessons” page to the “Education” section of our site for interactive lessons on various sustainable electronics topics. Check out “The Secret Life of Electronics” to explore some of the environmental and social impacts of electronic products.
A link to the controversial Executive Order 13693 (Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade) has been added to the U.S. Federal Legislation page. Effective March 19, 2015, this executive order is notable in its lack of any mention of the EPEAT registry tied to federal procurement preferences. For nearly a decade prior, 95% of electronics purchased by federal agencies were required to be EPEAT registered. The omission was met with criticism and concern from environmental and sustainability advocates, but the Green Electronics Council, which administers the EPEAT registry, has expressed confidence that federal agencies will continue to use the registry as a purchasing tool, since doing so is not precluded by the new executive order. UPDATE, 6/18/15: Implementation instructions for this Executive Order, dated June 10, 2015, make it clear that EPEAT is the only existing tool to achieve the electronic stewardship mandates of the order. This allays the fears of those who thought the omission of direct mention of EPEAT in the order would lead to weakening or failure as a tool for environmentally preferable purchasing. For more information, see the Resource Recycling article Federal government sticks with EPEAT after all.
A link to IL HB 1455was added under “Pending State & Local Legislation” on the U.S. State & Local Legislation page. This bill has passed the state House and Senate and is awaiting the signature of Governor Bruce Rauner. Synopsis As Introduced: “Amends the Electronic Products Recycling and Reuse Act. Provides that a manufacturer may count the total weight of a cathode ray tube device, prior to processing, towards its goal under this Section if all recyclable components are removed from the device and the cathode ray tube glass is managed in a manner that complies with all Illinois Environmental Protection Agency regulations for handling, treatment, and disposition of cathode ray tubes. Provides that, for specified categories of electronic devices, each manufacturer shall recycle or reuse at least 80% (was at least 50%) of the total weight of the electronic devices that the manufacturer sold in that category in Illinois during the calendar year 2 years before the applicable program year. Provides that a registered recycler or a refurbisher of CEDs and EEDs for a manufacturer obligated to meet goals may not charge individual consumers or units of local government acting as collectors a fee to recycle or refurbish CEDs and EEDs, unless the recycler or refurbisher provides (i) a financial incentive, such as a coupon, that is of greater or equal value to the fee being charged or (ii) premium service, such as curbside collection, home pick-up, drop-off locations, or a similar methods of collection. Provides that, in program year 2015, and each year thereafter, if the total weight of CEDs and EEDs recycled or processed for reuse by the manufacturer is less than 100% of the manufacturer’s individual recycling or reuse goal set forth in a specified provision of the Act, the manufacturer shall pay a penalty equal to the product of (i) $0.70 per pound; multiplied by (ii) the difference between the manufacturer’s individual recycling or reuse goal and the total weight of CEDs and EEDs recycled or processed for reuse by the manufacturer during the program year. Effective immediately.”
A link to the text of the Minnesota bill HF 1412 was also added under “Pending State & Local Legislation” on the U.S. State & Local Legislation page. This bill, introduced by Rep. Frank Hornstein on March 4, 2015, would change the determination of e-scrap collection requirements for manufacturers. Currently, manufacturers fund the MN electronics recycling program with contributions based on volume of equipment sold in the state annually. According to the Product Stewardship Institute, the new bill would ‘change the state’s reuse and recycling goals every year in response to changing weights and quantities of electronic products sold and recycled. [Minnesota Pollution Control Agency] will publish a new recycling goal each year based on the sum of the average weight of the electronic devices collected for recycling in the preceding two years.’ The bill additionally proposes to broaden the state’s electronics disposal ban, which currently only bans CRTs from landfills. If passed, the amended disposal ban would include products such as cellphones, video game consoles and computers and computer peripherals.
Redefining scope: the true environmental impact of smartphones: The aim of this study is to explore the literature surrounding the environmental impact of mobile phones and the implications of moving from the current business model of selling, using and discarding phones to a product service system based upon a cloud service. The exploration of the impacts relating to this shift and subsequent change in scope is explored in relation to the life cycle profile of a typical smartphone.
MeterHero: MeterHero is a sustainability exchange where you can offset your water and energy use by purchasing savings from local homes, schools, and buildings. People who conserve earn income and help save the planet. The MeterHero dashboard allows users to track their water, electric and gas usage, and money earned by reducing usage.
Carbon Nanotubes in Electronics: Background and Discussion for Waste-Handling Strategies: Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are increasingly being used in electronics products. CNTs have unique chemical and nanotoxicological properties, which are potentially dangerous to public health and the environment. This report presents the most recent findings of CNTs’ toxicity and discusses aspects related to incineration, recycling and potential remediation strategies including chemical and biological remediation possibilities. Our analysis shows that recycling CNTs may be challenging given their physiochemical properties and that available strategies such as power-gasification methods, biological degradation and chemical degradation may need to be combined with pre-handling routines for hazardous materials. The discussion provides the background knowledge for legislative measures concerning specialized waste handling and recycling procedures/facilities for electronics products containing CNTs.
Precarious Promise: A Case Study of Engineered Carbon Nanotubes: In just over two decades since the discovery of carbon nanotubes, technologies relying on engineered CNTs have developed at warp speed. Current and anticipated uses of engineered CNTs are numerous and diverse: sporting equipment, solar cells, wind turbines, disk drives, batteries, antifouling paints for boats, flame retardants, life-saving medical devices, drug delivery technologies, and many more. Some have suggested that every feature of life as we know it is or will be impacted by the discovery and use of CNTs. Despite uncertainty about how these entirely new materials may affect living systems, CNTs have largely been a case of “forget precaution, get to production.” Concern for human health and the environment has been overwhelmed by the promise of profits and progress. Financial support for nanomaterial research and commercial development has vastly outpaced funding of environmental health and safety and sustainable design research on these materials. And with limited understanding of how these structures — small enough to penetrate cells — will interact with humans and other life forms, use of CNTs is proliferating with few systems in place to protect people or the environment. Warning signs have emerged, however. CNTs share important physical characteristics with ultrafine air pollution particles as well as with asbestos fibers — both recognized as seriously toxic. Mounting numbers of toxicological studies now demonstrate irreversible health effects in laboratory animals, but it is unclear whether similar effects have occurred in humans exposed at work or through environmental releases. The growing literature on toxic effects of CNTs also make clear that the environmental and human health impacts may vary radically, depending on specific chemical and physical characteristics of the engineered nanomaterial. While some CNTs appear to be highly hazardous, it remains possible that others may pose little threat. Is it possible to gain the benefits of CNTs with minimal risk by ensuring the use of the safest alternatives for a particular application? (PDF Format; Length: 36 pages)