Getting the Lead Out of Lithium Battery Recycling

When that fateful morning comes that your car no longer roars to life with a quick twist of the key, but rather groans its displeasure at the sad state of your ride’s electrical system, your course is clear: you need a new battery. Whether you do it yourself or – perish the thought – farm out the job to someone else, the end result is the same. You get a spanking new lead-acid battery, and the old one is whisked away to be ground up and turned into a new battery in a nearly perfect closed loop system.

Contrast this to what happens to the battery in your laptop when it finally gives up the ghost. Some of us will pop the pack open, find the likely one bad cell, and either fix the pack or repurpose the good cells. But most dead lithium-based battery packs are dropped in the regular trash, or placed in blue recycling bins with the best of intentions but generally end up in the landfill anyway.

Why the difference between lead and lithium batteries? What about these two seemingly similar technologies dictates why one battery can have 98% of its material recycled, while the other is cheaper to just toss? And what are the implications down the road, when battery packs from electric vehicles start to enter the waste stream in bulk?

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More EL chemistry: Luminescent ink

[Jeri Ellsworth] continues her experiments with electroluminescence, this time she’s making EL ink. The ink she’s looking for is Zinc Sulfate in a solution. The process she chose is to re-dope some glow powder so that it can be excited by the field around an AC current. In her video (embedded after the break) she talks about the chemical properties she’s after by detailing a cubic lattice of zinc and sulfur atoms with an added copper atom (adding that atom is a process called doping).

The quick and dirty synopsis of the experiment starts by washing the glow powder with dish soap to acquire zinc sulfide crystals. Then she combined copper sulfate and zinc shavings from the inside of a modern penny to yield copper metal and zinc sulfate suspended in solution. That was mixed with the zinc sulfide from the glow powder washing and doped with a little more copper sulfate. The excess liquid is poured off, the test tube is capped with glass frit, and the whole thing hits the kiln to start the reaction. The result glows when excited by alternating current, but could have been improved by adding chlorine atoms into the mix.

We’re excited every time we see one of [Jeri’s] new chemistry hacks. We’d love to see more so if you’ve come across interesting chemistry experiments during your Internet travels, please let us know about them. Just make sure you have some idea of what you’re doing when working with chemicals… safety first.

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Desulfator in an altoids tin

desulfator

If you’ve ever let a car sit for a period of time and returned to find that the battery was mysteriously “dead”, you were probably experiencing a sulfate crystal build up. Often, people just buy a new battery and plop it in, but that isn’t absolutely necessary. [Kmpres] takes us through the process of building a desulfator. A desulfator works by putting high voltage pulses into the battery forcing the sulfate crystals to dissolve back into the electrolyte. From what [Kmpres] says, you can find “bad” batteries in all kinds of places, use the desulfator on them and have perfectly fine batteries when you’re done. You may recall doing something similar with a disposable camera.