Scientists Convert Packing Peanuts Into Better Battery Parts

03/23/2015 03:37 pm ET | Updated Apr 03, 2015

Packing peanuts are great at protecting valuables, but what in the heck do you do with them once they've done their job?

"Although packing peanuts are used worldwide as a perfect solution for shipping, they are notoriously difficult to break down, and only about 10 percent are recycled," Dr. Vilas Pol, an associate professor of chemical and materials engineering at Purdue University, said in a written statement.

But Pol and his team of researchers came up with an ingenious idea: use the squishy peanuts to make a key component for rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.

The idea came to the scientists when they received a shipment of new laboratory equipment, and wondered if they could do anything "useful" with the leftover packing materials. The researchers heated the packing peanuts to between 500 and 900 degrees Celsius, and voila! The two types of peanuts--some made from polystyrene and others from starch--were converted into carbon nanoparticles and thin carbon sheets.

The team was then able to use those materials to create battery parts called anodes, where ions get stored when a battery recharges. What's more, Pol and his colleagues found that the new anodes actually took a charge faster than conventional graphite anodes.

Talk about a win-win!

(Story continues below diagram.)

packing peanuts chart
This schematic depicts a process for converting packing peanuts into high-performance anodes for rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. The experimental anodes outperform conventional graphite anodes.

Best of all, the process of recycling the peanuts is cheap, scaleable, and environmentally friendly, according to the researchers. They predict that we'll be able to recycle about 50 percent of the peanuts within the next five years.

"These initial laboratory-based coin cell batteries are already powering light emitting diodes (LEDs) and wristwatches," Pol told The Huffington Post in an email. "After scaling up the carbon-production process, we will be able to make larger-size batteries that can power larger devices."

The researchers also envision the carbon materials being used in filters, tires, printer ink, and more, the Pacific Standard reported.

The new findings are scheduled to be presented at the American Chemical Society's annual meeting, held in Denver from March 22-26.

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