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Researchers may be able to recycle old batteries using fungus


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Researchers may be able to recycle old batteries using fungus

Ian Crossland
Aug 23, 2016, 4:56:18 PM

It seems scientists are now capable of recovering the valuable lithium and cobalt in most modern batteries using a simple and organic method.

Fungal deconstruction.

Until now, any recovery method used insane amounts of heat and harsh chemicals. If not recovered, the batteries sit in landfills and poison the earth or are tossed into incinerators where they produce nasty gases. Now, it seems, things are changing.

"The idea first came from a student who had experience extracting some metals from waste slag left over from smelting operations," says Jeffrey A. Cunningham, Ph.D., the project's team leader. "We were watching the huge growth in smartphones and all the other products with rechargeable batteries, so we shifted our focus. The demand for lithium is rising rapidly, and it is not sustainable to keep mining new lithium resources," he adds, concluding fungus to be a "very cheap source of labor,"

They are using three strains of fungi -- Aspergillus niger, Penicillium simplicissimum and Penicillium chrysogenum. "We selected these strains of fungi because they have been observed to be effective at extracting metals from other types of waste products," Cunningham says. "We reasoned that the extraction mechanisms should be similar, and, if they are, these fungi could probably work to extract lithium and cobalt from spent batteries."

The fungi Aspergillus niger (top left), Penicillium simplicissimum (top right) and Penicillium chrysogenum (bottom) can recycle cobalt and lithium from rechargeable batteries. Credit: Aldo Lobos

The process of extraction is interesting. First, they dismantle the batteries and pulverize the cathodes. Then, they expose the remaining pulp to the fungus. "Fungi naturally generate organic acids, and the acids work to leach out the metals," Cunningham explains. "Through the interaction of the fungus, acid and pulverized cathode, we can extract the valuable cobalt and lithium. We are aiming to recover nearly all of the original material."

Currently, the metals remain in an aqueous solution and recovering it is the next step.

"We have ideas about how to remove cobalt and lithium from the acid, but at this point, they remain ideas," he says. "However, figuring out the initial extraction with fungi was a big step forward."