Are Orange Peels the Key to Recycling Lithium-Ion Batteries?

When it comes to new sciences and technology, it seems that there are strides being made every day toward sustainability and creating a better planet for all who live on it. This means that creative and peculiar innovations are often underway. Unexpected changes are being made to the way we use and think about technology and the future of sustainable practices. All this is to say that while orange peels and lithium-ion batteries may seem like a farfetched combination, it’s important to keep an open mind.

Li ion laptop battery

While still in the early stages of discovery, there is research and evidence suggesting orange peels are a key new way to recharge and recycle lithium-ion batteries. This could be a great stride for sustainability and ease in so many ways. From electronic waste to food waste and composting capabilities, using orange peels in combination with lithium-ion batteries could be an all-around success that hits multiple bases with just one process.

There’s a lot to unpack with the process and research surrounding the recharging of these batteries and exactly why orange peels are the great new solution everyone seems to be turning to. From the strides in sustainability to the mind-blowing scientific research, this innovative method of recycling could be the next big thing.

What Are Lithium-Ion Batteries?

Before you understand what makes this process so important, you should probably have a foundation of knowledge about what lithium-ion batteries actually are and what they do.

Lithium-ion batteries are most often used in mobile phones, tablets and portable laptops, as they provide an efficient source of rechargeable, portable energy for small devices. They even used to be common for powering medical equipment, electric vehicles and power tools, so they’re hardly a new invention. Consumers use these batteries almost every day, even if they don’t realize it and aren’t familiar with all the terminology.

Lithium-ion batteries work by relying on the movement of lithium. They do this by sending the positively charged ions through the battery so they can release their positive electrons to power devices. This process creates a positive charge at the positive side of the collector. This current of positive charge passes through the device housing the battery, providing power for any phone, tablet or laptop. Once it expends that power, it returns to the negative terminal until it can be recharged again.

Lithium-Ion Batteries and Sustainability

You may be asking yourself how lithium-ion batteries are better for sustainability and simple modern use than other batteries. While part of what sets lithium-ion batteries apart is their ability to recharge, they do so in a unique way. These batteries don’t have any “memory” of how much charge they had in the past.

Their lack of power memory allows for intermittent recharging — in other words, charging before the battery is drained entirely in order to maximize the charging capacity. This is why you can charge your phone or laptop while you’re using it so it can reach 100% before you leave the house or go to sleep at night.

This already makes this form of charging more sustainable, as it requires less electricity to maintain a charge than to let a device deplete fully and then bring it back to life each time. However, even after these batteries die, they don’t fall completely out of use. They can be recycled, though the process isn’t always perfect.

Some of the processes used thus far to recycle these batteries and bring them back to life can emit harsh chemicals and cause harmful waste, which poses a choice between that and the landfill. This is part of why those oranges are so appealing.

When Lithium-Ion Batteries Actually Die

For the most part, lithium-ion batteries tend to go out with a fizzle rather than a bang. You may notice with older phones and laptops that, after a while, they struggle to hold their charge and tend to deplete quickly. Sometimes, they become more sensitive to temperature and weather conditions they’re not used to, which can cause overheating or discharging too quickly in the cold. These are all signs that the battery is on its way out.

Lithium-ion batteries aren’t perfect. Even though they don’t cause waste like standard batteries you buy in a pack at the store, the death of a lithium-ion battery usually means electronic waste, as the process to revive it is often not worth the environmental or logistical trouble.

Food and Electronic Waste

Electronic waste is a huge issue for the environment, along with food waste. While orange peels are compostable, lithium-ion batteries are not, to say the least. Every year, 50 million tons of electronic waste is generated worldwide, not to mention the 150 billion tons of food waste produced annually to go alongside it.

While the process of using orange peels to recycle batteries may seem like a simply intriguing innovation, it actually stands to directly combat both of these environmental issues.

While orange peels are biodegradable, they are inevitably a part of the food that usually goes to waste, so the opportunity to use them in a project like this presents the best of both worlds. Tech waste, on the other hand, is one of the major issues this process works to put a serious dent in. With small personal devices sweeping the market now more than ever before in history, lithium-ion batteries are being used and drained at a higher rate. Finding an efficient way to recycle them could prevent them from ending up in landfills.

The Research

All of this started with a team of scientists at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, who developed a method for using orange peels to extract and reuse precious metals from dead lithium-ion batteries to create new batteries out of them. The process extracts the most important parts of the batteries to make new ones, so the process creates minimal waste and is safe for everyone involved.

This process is innovative not only because it uses recycled materials, but also because it doesn’t use any of the extreme heat or harsh chemicals usually associated with recharging or repurposing the materials in lithium-ion batteries. Hydrogen peroxide is often used in existing processes, but results show that orange peels are already looking like the superior solution.

The more common processes like those that use hydrogen peroxide emit toxic gasses or create harmful waste, but these researchers have used organic compounds in fruit to find a new way of going about the process. In addition, it’s also lower in cost, so it truly hits all the bases.

Why Orange Peels?

Just like there are all different kinds of recycling processes and technological innovations, there are plenty of fruits to choose from. This could leave you wondering — why oranges? More specifically, why the peels?

According to Assistant Professor Dalton Tay of the NTU School of Materials Science and Engineering and School of Biological Sciences, it’s all about the cellulose found in the orange peel. During the extraction process, the cellulose is converted into sugar under the heat, and those sugars enhance the recovery of metals from battery waste. Basically, the sugar helps the metals recover so they can be used again, even after the battery has already been used once.

In addition to the sugars from the cellulose, orange peels provide a unique blend of antioxidants like flavonoids and phenolic acids — just to name a few. These antioxidants could also play a role in the success of the process as well.

On top of all this, the orange peels make for a uniquely natural and safe recharging method as far as the research can tell. Just like any scientific process, this method produces residue. When tested, the residue was found to be non-toxic, which suggests that this process is safe and healthy. This makes sense, as the main components are natural plant fibers.

While the research is still underway, it’s promising that orange peels can safely create a charge that’s strong enough to recharge lithium-ion batteries, effectively creating a perfect way to reuse and recycle in new, innovative capacities.

Where Do We Go From Here?

This is all amazing news, but it may leave you wondering what exactly the next step is for food waste, electronic waste and the technology that can help to prevent it. This testing is still in its early stages, and the teams who developed it will continue working on the research and processes to bring this method into the mainstream. In the meantime, lithium-ion batteries will continue to be used widely, so this innovation couldn’t have come at a better time.

We should all keep our eyes “peeled” for the awesome new developments that are sure to come and try to limit tech and food waste while we do. Natural sustainability is the way of the future, and research like this is pushing it forward to make those ideas a reality.

Bio:

Emily Folk is a freelance writer and blogger on conservation and sustainability. To see her latest posts, check out her blog, Conservation Folks, or follow her on Twitter, @emilysfolk!

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