Group Examines Electric Vehicle Battery Recycling and Reuse Opportunities in Michigan

An electric vehicle plugged in to charge

A collaborative effort in Michigan is considering recycling and repurposing capacity and opportunities in the state of Michigan, as reported by Chioma Lewis for Great Lakes Echo:

A new project by recycling company Battery Solutions and sustainability-focused group NextEnergy aims to make electric vehicle recycling opportunity recommendations to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy by February 2022.

The project is funded by a $50,000 grant from the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy as part of their NextCycle Michigan initiative.

A major part of the project is to build capacity in the state for repurposing and recycling electric vehicle batteries, said Jim Saber, the president and CEO of NextEnergy.

The six-stage project will involve cataloging, evaluating and analyzing Michigan’s electric vehicle battery supply chain and infrastructure.

The project will also analyze gaps in electric vehicle battery secondary use and recycling opportunities.

Electric vehicle battery components could be reclaimed for use in the creation of new batteries or other products, while intact batteries might be repurposed for renewable power or other energy storage applications.

Read the full story in Great Lakes Echo.

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New Wind Turbine Blade Design Reportedly Cheaper, Recyclable

As reported in Scientific American, researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have developed a new wind turbine blade that will be cheaper to make and transport, and is recyclable, unlike blades currently in use which end up being landfilled at end-of-life.

“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.

Read the full story at https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/new-wind-turbine-blades-could-be-recycled-instead-of-landfilled/

 

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Wind Turbine Blades Can’t Be Recycled, So They’re Piling Up in Landfills, Feb. 5, 2020 by Chris Martin for Bloomberg

Wind Turbine End-of-Life Strategies from the AWEA

NREL Advanced Manufacturing Research Moves Wind Turbine Blades Toward Recyclability, NREL news release, Nov. 17, 2020

Woman in lab coat examines wind turbine blade
NREL researcher Robynne Murray works on a thermoplastic composite turbine blade at the Composites Manufacturing Education and Technology Facility at NREL’s Flatirons Campus. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

Fruit Peels Prove Useful for Recycling Lithium-Ion Batteries

Food waste and electronic waste are two aspects of the waste stream that present a multitude of challenges for human society. Now a team of scientists led by the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore has developed a way to use food waste–specifically orange peels–to recover precious metals from spent lithium-ion batteries for reuse in the creation of new batteries.

As reported in SciTech Daily,

An estimated 1.3 billion tonnes of food waste and 50 million tonnes of e-waste are generated globally each year.

Spent batteries are conventionally treated with extreme heat (over 500°C) to smelt valuable metals, which emits hazardous toxic gases. Alternative approaches that use strong acid solutions or weaker acid solutions with hydrogen peroxide to extract the metals are being explored, but they still produce secondary pollutants that pose health and safety risks, or rely on hydrogen peroxide which is hazardous and unstable.

Professor Madhavi Srinivasan, co-director of the NTU Singapore-CEA Alliance for Research in Circular Economy (NTU SCARCE) lab, said: “Current industrial recycling processes of e-waste are energy-intensive and emit harmful pollutants and liquid waste, pointing to an urgent need for eco-friendly methods as the amount of e-waste grows. Our team has demonstrated that it is possible to do so with biodegradable substances.”‘

Current industrial processes for recycling batteries involve shredding the batteries and crushing them into a powdery substance. That powdery substance is either smelted at temperatures above 500 degrees Celsius to separate metals or subjected to a chemical leaching technique using a mixture of acids and hydrogen peroxide plus heat. The newly developed process substitutes orange peels instead of the acids and hydrogen peroxide typically used. The researchers oven-dried orange peels, ground them to powder, and mixed them with citric acid, a weak acid found in citrus fruits.

‘Asst Prof Tay explained: “The key lies in the cellulose found in orange peel, which is converted into sugars under heat during the extraction process. These sugars enhance the recovery of metals from battery waste. Naturally-occurring antioxidants found in orange peel, such as flavonoids and phenolic acids, could have contributed to this enhancement as well.”

Importantly, solid residues generated from this process were found to be non-toxic, suggesting that this method is environmentally sound, he added.’

The researchers were further able to use metals recovered via this process to assemble new lithium-ion batteries which displayed a charge-capacity similar to commercially available batteries.  The team is hoping to further optimize the batteries they can produce in this fashion and extend their “waste-to-resource” approach to other cellulose-rich fruit and vegetable waste and other lithium-ion battery types.

Learn more:

“Repurposing of Fruit Peel Waste as a Green Reductant for Recycling of Spent Lithium-Ion Batteries” by Zhuoran Wu, Tanto Soh, Jun Jie Chan, Shize Meng, Daniel Meyer, Madhavi Srinivasan and Chor Yong Tay, 9 July 2020, Environmental Science & Technology.
DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.0c02873

Schematic showing the process of using orange peels to extract metals from lithium-ion batteries
Credit: NTU Singapore

Families of Child Miners Sue Tech Companies Over Human Rights Abuses

In the January 9, 2020 edition of Triple Pundit, Roya Sabri reported on a lawsuit filed by International Rights Advocates (IRA) on behalf of child miners and their families, against several major tech companies, including Apple, Alphabet (parent company of Google), Microsoft, Dell and Tesla. The lawsuit argues that tech companies, profiting from the cobalt supplies which are often supported by child miners’ efforts, should be responsible for the wellbeing of those subsistence cobalt miners.

From Sabri’s article:

The DRC supplies the world with more than 60 percent of its cobalt. A good portion is mined by subsistence miners — independent contractors who take it upon themselves to find and unearth the metal. The miners climb down shafts just wide enough for their bodies with no more than a flimsy headlamp, a hammer and a sack. If a worker gets hurt or dies, buyers take no responsibility and do not offer assistance or support. Reports by Amnesty International and The Washington Post in 2016 revealed these inhumane conditions, but little has changed for the better since then.

Young children are entering this work, often to help their families pay for the essentials needed to survive. The lawsuit’s plaintiff, labeled Jane Doe 1, reports that her nephew began working in mines to pay his $6 a month school fee. Last year, the tunnel where he was digging collapsed. The family never found his body.

The narratives documented by the lawsuit show that this boy’s story is not an isolated incident.

Read the full story at Triple Pundit: https://www.triplepundit.com/story/2020/silicon-valley-giants-sued-over-human-rights-abuses-cobalt-supply-chain/86141.

For the IRA press release related to this lawsuit, see http://www.iradvocates.org/press-release/iradvocates-files-forced-child-labor-case-against-tech-giants-apple-alphabet-dell.

For previous SEI posts related to cobalt in the electronics supply chain, see https://sustainable-electronics.istc.illinois.edu/?s=cobalt.

Video Illustrates Materials Used in Smartphones and Amounts

Check out the video below from the Sustainable Earth Institute of the University of Plymouth (in the UK).

Besides allowing one to vicariously experience childish glee at watching the destruction of a smartphone by blender (which we of course should NOT try at home), the video provides a brief glimpse at the process of analyzing materials in a lab. Most importantly, it does an excellent job of helping viewers visualize the relative amounts of materials present in the phone, including coins for comparison to a familiarly-sized object (few of us know what 0.7 g or 10 mg really looks like without a reference object for comparison).

The video goes a step further by providing a visualization of the relative amounts of those component elements which would be present in a year’s worth of smartphone production, with a human figure and soccer pitch provided for reference. It’s a great example of how to effectively translate abstract statistics into accessible, meaningful information for the general public.

This would be excellent for presentation to students of all ages, as part of discussions related to industrial design, materials sourcing and impacts, why reclamation of materials from electronics is so important, etc.

To read the full post on this video and the scientists behind it ( Dr. Arjan Dijkstra and Dr. Colin Wilkins, geologists from the University’s School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences ), see https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/news/scientists-use-a-blender-to-reveal-whats-in-our-smartphones.

 

Discard Studies Post: Mapping US Electronics Manufacturing Pollution

Today on the Discard Studies blog, Josh Lepawsky takes a look at the upstream impacts of electronics manufacturing in the United States–specifically by analyzing chemical releases from the industry over time, using the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) data.

He writes: “These maps and their data point to three primary issues in pollution and discard studies: 1) waste and wasting occur not only at the end point of discarding consumer items, but at multiple points along the manufacturing and supply chain. A focus on end-of-life rather than the entire life cycle can cause an analytical near-sightedness when it comes to understanding a sector’s waste impacts. 2) One of the primary methodological issues with doing studies on externalities is that they are rarely counted– they are made invisible by their very externalization. Using publicly available data in new ways can start to open up the otherwise hard-to-see infrastructure of waste and wasting. 3) The data we can find, especially on industrial waste, is always partial and always tells a partial story. Here, it looks like overall pollution is decreasing over time, but really it is just being moved in space. Other places do not have the same kind of reporting of emissions, so the shifted pollution is rendered invisible once again.

Read his full post at https://discardstudies.com/2019/03/18/25-years-of-toxicants-from-us-computers-and-electronics/.

Check out the Discard Studies blog for more discourse on waste issues. From the site: “Discard Studies is designed as an online hub for scholars, activists, environmentalists, students, artists, planners, and others who are asking questions about waste, not just as an ecological problem, but as a process, category, mentality, judgment, an infrastructural and economic challenge, and as a site for producing power as well as struggles against power structures.

For more information on the US EPA’s TRI program and available data, see https://www.epa.gov/toxics-release-inventory-tri-program.

RSN Recommends Regulatory Enforcement, Investor Engagement to Urge Corporate Due Diligence on Conflict Minerals

The Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN), is a project of the nonprofit organization As You Sow, dedicated to ending human rights abuses and forced labor associated with the raw materials found in consumer products. On October 18, 2018, RSN released its Mining the Disclosures 2018: An Investor Guide to Conflict Minerals Reporting in Year Five report, which “analyzes 206 companies’ supply chain due diligence efforts regarding conflict minerals, including tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold, or 3TG. In the fifth consecutive year of analyzing companies’ conflict minerals compliance and reporting, the report shows that a large number of the companies’ scores stayed flat or decreased.”

Read the full press release at https://www.sourcingnetwork.org/press-release-mtd-2018. You can download this year’s report, those from previous years, and watch a webinar about the 2018 report at https://www.sourcingnetwork.org/mining-the-disclosures.

Cover of the Mining the Disclosures report

According to RSN, “The technology sector outperformed all others, while laggard industries included integrated oil & gas, steel, business services, and building materials. Innovative companies showed constant improvements, including increased participation in on-the-ground initiatives, proactive risk assessments, and comprehensive risk mitigation measures. However, compared to 2017, a majority of companies’ scores that reflect alignment with the OECD’S Conflict Minerals Guidance declined. The results show a global lack of desire to improve due diligence practices over the last few years.

“Conflict minerals” include tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold (aka 3TG). They are so called because these minerals are often sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which is one of the most mineral-rich countries in the world, and in recent years, unfortunately also one of the most war-torn. Militant groups controlling mines have used violence, including murder, torture, rape and other sexual violence, forced labor and use of child soldiers, in their control of the populace to further their profit from sale of these minerals and their war efforts. Conflict minerals are used in a wide variety of electronic devices, and are also found in a variety of other products, including jewelry, dental products, tools, biocides, ammunition, medical devices, and others. For more information, see https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/conflict-minerals/ and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conflict_resource#Conflict_minerals.

Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Action, passed in 2010 and implemented starting in 2012 by the Securities and Exchange Commission, requires that all companies publicly traded in the the US with products containing any of the four conflict minerals report on the source of the minerals in their supply chain. This required transparency has not eliminated human rights issues associated with conflict mineral sourcing, but it has demonstrably improved conditions for Congolese miners. Before passage of the law, the UN reported that nearly every mine in Congo was controlled by armed groups. As of 2016, the independent research institute, International Peace Information Service (IPIS) found that 79% of “3T” miners surveyed in eastern Congo were working in mines where no armed group involvement had been reported. (See https://enoughproject.org/special-topics/progress-and-challenges-conflict-minerals-facts-dodd-frank-1502).

RSN cites the Trump administration’s “contempt for regulations” and threats made last year to “suspend Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act” as part of the reason for the decline in corporate due diligence related to conflict minerals sourcing. “The disregard of corporate responsibility for conflict minerals during the Trump administration is concerning,” said Raphaël Deberdt, author of the Mining the Disclosures 2018 report. “The increasing neglect of the conflict minerals legislation from some companies over the past few years has been a source of human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And these abuses extend beyond the 3TG sphere.

According the RSN press release: ‘Companies involved in mineral supply chains — from mines to retailers — now face additional challenges that must be integrated into corporate risk mitigation frameworks. The increasing importance of cobalt, lithium, and nickel in the automotive and technology sectors should trigger red flags in compliance departments in a broader risk context, including environmental degradation, organizational health and safety, human rights, and community impacts. Similarly, the upcoming EU regulation will necessitate increased due diligence from importers of 3TG, not only from the Congo region, but from all conflict-affected and high-risks areas. “The results of this year’s report demonstrate the need for an increase in regulatory enforcement and investor engagement that urge companies to undertake proactive due diligence efforts,” said Patricia Jurewicz, vice president of Responsible Sourcing Network. “These programs must continuously improve to address and mitigate the evolving material risks associated with conflict mineral supply chains.”

RSN further asserted that “leading companies” such as Intel, Microsoft, Apple, Qualcomm, Ford, Royal Philips, and HP “prove that taking a due diligence approach to reduce harmful impacts on the communities producing the raw materials in our electronics is an achievable and beneficial business model.

The Mining the Disclosures report was sponsored by As You Sow and the Responsible Minerals Initiative (RMI), which is holding its annual conference on October 31-November 2, 2018 in Santa Clara, CA.

 

3D Printing Potential Negative Impacts–Five Resources

Additive manufacturing, more commonly referred to as 3D printing, is an increasingly widespread technology in schools, libraries, and other public makerspaces, often seen as a part of STEAM education. Manufacturers and innovators see the technology as means to create products or necessary items cheaply and relatively quickly, and in many cases with less waste of material than in other manufacturing processes–see for example, the MIT Technology Review article on GE’s use of additive manufacturing to produce fuel nozzles for aircraft engines. In developing nations, 3D printing can offer a means to more easily provide items that add to quality of life at a lower cost than typical. For example, the Victoria Hand project 3D prints prosthetics to assist amputees. 

With so much positive potential, what could possibly be the downsides of 3D printing?  While negative impacts might not be immediately obvious, sustainability advocates must always consider all potential impacts of a technology, product, or action, both positive and negative. The following resources are a good start for considering the often overlooked potential negative impacts of 3D printing.

  • The Health Effects of 3D Printing. This October 2016 article from American Libraries Magazine discusses exposure to ultrafine particles (UFPs), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and the risks of bacterial growth in small fissures found within 3D printed objects. The authors provide some very basic tips for reducing risks to patrons and library staff members.
  • 3-D printing: A Boon or Bane? Though a bit dated, this article by Robert Olson, a senior fellow at the Institute for Alternative Futures in Alexandria, VA, in the November/December 2013 issue of the Environmental Forum (the policy journal of the Environmental Law Institute) does a good job of outlining some of the issues that need to be considered when assessing the impacts or appropriateness of this technology. “How efficient are these technologies in the use of materials and energy? What materials are used and what are the worker exposure and environmental impacts? Does the design of printed objects reduce end-of-life options? Does more localized production reduce the carbon footprint? And will simplicity and ubiquity cause us to overprint things, just as we do with paper?
  • The dark side of 3D printing: 10 things to watch. This 2014 article by Lyndsey Gilpin for Tech Republic concisely outlines ten potential negative impacts, such as the reliance on plastics, including some that may not have occurred to you, such as IP and licensing issues, bioethics, and national security. Note the mention of 3D printed guns, which have been in the news a fair amount during 2018.
  • 3-D printer emissions raise concerns and prompt controls. This March 26, 2018 article by Janet Pelley in Chemical & Engineering News focuses on potential negative health impacts of inhaling VOCs and plastic particles. “Although the government has set workplace standards for a few of the VOCs released by 3-D printers, these are for healthy working-age adults in industrial settings such as tire or plastic manufacturing plants: None of the compounds is regulated in homes or libraries where 3-D printers might be used by sensitive populations such as children. Furthermore, researchers don’t know the identity of most of the compounds emitted by printers. “Scientists know that particles and VOCs are bad for health, but they don’t have enough information to create a regulatory standard for 3-D printers,” says Marina E. Vance, an environmental engineer at the University of Colorado, Boulder. What’s more, data from early studies of 3-D printer emissions are difficult to use in developing standards because of variability in the test conditions, says Rodney J. Weber, an aerosol chemist at Georgia Institute of Technology. Two years ago, UL, an independent safety certification company, established an advisory board and began funding research projects to answer basic questions about the amounts and types of compounds in 3-D printer emissions, what levels are safe, and how to minimize exposures, says Marilyn S. Black, a vice president at UL. The company is working to create a consistent testing and evaluation method so that researchers will be able to compare data across different labs. ‘By this fall we will put out an ANSI [American National Standards Institute] standard for measuring particles and VOCs for everyone to use,” she says. See the UL Additive Manufacturing pages“, specifically the “library” section for their currently available safety publications.
  • 3D Printing and the Environment: The Implications of Additive Manufacturing. This special issue of Yale’s Journal of Industrial Ecology from November 2017 is the least “layperson friendly” resource provided in this post, but includes a variety of research articles providing important insights into its environmental, energy, and health impacts.

Researchers Use Ultrasound to Recover Gold from Electronic Scrap

The last few months have been ripe with reports on new research related to material recovery from electronic scrap (commonly referred to as “e-scrap” or “e-waste”), as highlighted in a previous post. I’ve learned of yet another exciting innovation in this field, thanks to a feature written by Jared Paben in the latest edition (4/19/18) of E-Scrap News.

As Paben reports, researchers from Sandia National Laboratories have developed a method to use ultrasonic waves, coupled with surfactants, to cheaply and efficiently recover gold from scrap electronics. Their experiments involved application of two different surfactants to the surface of a cell phone SIM card, which was then submerged in water. Ultrasonic waves were applied, which imploded micro-bubbles on the SIM card’s surface. Upon collapse of these micro-bubbles, micro-jets ejected gold nanoparticles from the card’s surface, and the nanoparticles were captured and stabilized by the surfactants.

According to the research group’s paper, published in the journal Small on 3/24/18), this mechanical method may not only present an effective way of reclaiming gold and other metals from electronic scrap, but could potentially be used to manufacture gold nanoparticles from native gold metal directly upon recovery from mining, which they say “may represent the greenest possible approach to nanoparticle synthesis.” (Citation: J. Watt, M. J. Austin, C. K. Simocko, D. V. Pete, J. Chavez, L. M. Ammerman, D. L. Huber, Small 2018, 1703615. https://doi.org/10.1002/smll.201703615)

You can read more about this research in a 4/3/18 article from New Scientist.

To learn about cavitation and cavitation bubbles, the phenomena which allow this mechanical process to work, see https://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/science_nation/cavitationbubbles.jsp and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cavitation.

For more information on gold in electronics, see How Much Gold is in Smartphones and Computers? and Uses of Gold in Industry, Medicine, Computers, Electronics, Jewelry.

To learn about the properties and applications of gold nanoparticles, see https://www.sigmaaldrich.com/technical-documents/articles/materials-science/nanomaterials/gold-nanoparticles.html.

Amnesty International Reports on Child Labor in Cobalt Battery Supply Chain

On November 15, 2017, Sustainable Brands reported that Amnesty International had released a new report revealing that tech industry giants such as Microsoft, Lenovo, Renault and Vodafone aren’t doing enough to keep child labor out of cobalt battery supply chains in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and China. “The findings come almost two years after Amnesty exposed a link between batteries used in their products and child labor. Time to Recharge ranks industry leaders, including Apple, Samsung SDI, Dell, Microsoft, BMW, Renault, Vodafone and Tesla according to improvements to their cobalt-sourcing practices since January 2016. The 108-page report revealed that only a handful of companies made progress, with many failing to take even basic steps, such as investigating supply links in the DRC. The report’s publication is timely, arriving just months after the UK government announced plans to ban new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2040, which would ultimately lead to higher demand for cobalt batteries. This last point is particularly problematic as recent reports have revealed that cobalt resources are on the decline, despite demand growth predicted at 500 percent.”

See http://www.sustainablebrands.com/news_and_views/walking_talk/sustainable_brands/amnesty_international_reveals_tech_industry_giants_fa for the complete article on the Sustainable Brands web site.

To download the report itself, Democratic Republic of the Congo: Time to recharge: Corporate action and inaction to tackle abuses in the cobalt supply chain (15 November 2017, Index number: AFR 62/7395/2017), see https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/afr62/7395/2017/en/.

Amnesty International logo, with the wordmark on a yellow background beside a stylized image of a lit candle entwined with barbed wire