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Technology & Innovation

Greening The Common Lithium-Ion Battery

By substituting a common plant dye for the metals used to extract lithium, researchers say many of the environmental hazards associated with production and disposal can be avoided.

What’s the Latest Development?

Research published Tuesday in Nature magazine’s open journal Scientific Reports describes the creation of a non-toxic and sustainable lithium-ion battery using purpurin, the color ingredient found in the madder plant and used for millennia to dye fabrics red and pink. Because of its molecular structure, which easily passes electrons back and forth, the purpurin can be used with lithium salt to create the battery’s electrode. Lithium-ion batteries are used in a wide range of devices, from mobile phones to electric cars.

What’s the Big Idea?

Currently lithium-ion battery electrodes are made using fixed supplies of cobalt and other mined metal ores, and as a result almost every phase of a battery’s lifecycle involves large amounts of energy and emissions of carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere. Madder crops, on the other hand, won’t impact the environment as severely, and a battery created using purpurin can just be thrown away. The research team, representing the City College of New York and Rice University along with the US Army Research Laboratory, says that more tests are needed to increase the efficiency of purpurin or, if needed, locate and synthesize similarly-behaving molecules. It won’t take long before it’s on the market, they say, because “we are fully aware of the [chemical] mechanism.”

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