Upcycling: Using plastic to make batteries

Waste plastic from “throwaway” carrier bags can be readily converted into carbon nanotubes. The chemist who developed the technique has even used the nanotubes to make lithium-ion batteries.

This is called “upcycling” – converting a waste product into something more valuable. Finding ways to upcycle waste could encourage more recycling: for instance, bacteria can convert plastic drinks bottles into a more expensive plastic.

The carrier-bag-to-nanotube technique was developed by Vilas Ganpat Pol at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and converts high or low-density polyethylene (HDPE and LDPE) into valuable multiwalled carbon nanotubes.
Bag baker

Pol made the nanotubes by cooking 1-gram pieces of HDPE or LDPE at 700 °C for 2 hours in the presence of a cobalt acetate catalyst and then letting the mixture cool gradually. Above 600 °C the chemical bonds within the plastic completely break down and multiwalled carbon nanotubes grow on the surface of the catalytic particles.

A lot of catalyst is needed to get good results – about a fifth of the weight of the plastic being converted – and it cannot easily be recovered afterwards. But Pol says this is still one of the cheapest and environmentally friendly ways yet found to grow nanotubes.

“Other methods generally require a vacuum to avoid oxygen interaction with the catalyst as well as with the system,” he says. “In my new reaction there is no vacuum – the formation of oxide is inhibited due to the presence of a continuous reducing hydrocarbon atmosphere at 700 °C.”
Nanotube nuggets

Individual pieces of the catalyst become trapped inside forests of newly grown nanotubes. But Pol has shown the nanotubes can be used as is without further processing to cut them free.

“I have used the as-prepared cobalt-encapsulated nanotubes as an anode material for lithium-ion batteries and they work fantastically,” he says. “The specific capacity of my carbon nanotubes is higher than commercial nanotubes.” He thinks that might be down to slight imperfections in the usually-regular structure of the nanotubes, created by the reducing atmosphere during fabrication.

The cobalt impurities also make the nanotubes suitable for use in lithium-air batteries, because the cobalt is converted to cobalt oxides that perform as catalysts to help the reactions of ions in the battery that let current flow, says Pol. He has patented the use of the cobalt-containing nanotubes in both lithium-ion and lithium-air batteries: “The cobalt is not an impurity, it is an asset,” he says.
Recycling jigsaw

Geoffrey Mitchell at the University of Reading in the UK is an expert in recycling plastic. He thinks the new technique is an “interesting part of the jigsaw” of recycling plastic waste to make high-value electronic materials.

But he thinks the use of relatively expensive cobalt as a non-recoverable catalyst might be problematic if the system is ever to be scaled up. Pol agrees, but adds that the type of batteries he proposes using the nanotubes for are already recycled for their cobalt, so the metal would ultimately be recovered.

From this week’s New Scientist:

Leaving the catalyst out of the process altogether yields another carbon product of potential value, though: carbon spheres between 2 and 10 micrometres across that can be used in printer ink, says Pol.

Fund-balance covers the Blue Economy: As oceans fall ill, Washington bureaucrats squabble

WASHINGTON — Off the coast of Washington state , mysterious algae mixed with sea foam have killed more than 8,000 seabirds, puzzling scientists. A thousand miles off California , researchers have discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling vortex roughly twice the size of Texas filled with tiny bits of plastic and other debris.

Every summer a dead zone of oxygen-depleted water the size of Massachusetts forms in the Gulf of Mexico ; others have been found off Oregon and in the Chesapeake Bay , Lake Erie and the Baltic and Black seas. Some studies indicate that North Pole seawater could turn caustic in 10 years, and that the Southern Ocean already may be saturated with carbon dioxide.

A recent bird kill off the coast of Washington state came without warning, said Jane Lubchenco , the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration . “There will be more surprises than that,” she said.

The danger signals are everywhere, some related to climate change and greenhouse gases and others not:

— Every eight months, 11 million gallons of oil run off the nation’s roads and driveways into waters that eventually reach the sea, the Pew Oceans Commission said in 2003. That’s the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez-size oil spill.

— Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the oceans have absorbed 525 billion tons of carbon dioxide. They’re now absorbing about 22 million tons of carbon dioxide a day. As that happens, the oceans become more acidic, threatening the marine food chain. The acidity could eat away the shells of such animals as the petropod, a nearly microscopic snail with a calcium carbonate covering that’s eaten by krill, salmon and whales.

— More than 60 percent of the nation’s coastal rivers and bays are moderately to severely degraded by nutrient runoff from products such as fertilizer, creating algae blooms that affect the kelp beds and grasses that are nurseries for many species of fish.

Even that doesn’t tell the entire story, as competing uses for the sea multiply. Traditional ones such as fishing and shipping are competing with offshore aquaculture farms. On the energy front, it’s no longer just oil and gas drilling. There are plans for deepwater wind farms and tidal and wave power-generating projects.

As the grim news mounts, a storm is brewing in Washington, D.C. , over who should oversee oceans policies. A White House task force has recommended creating a National Ocean Council that would develop and implement national ocean policy and include the secretaries of state, defense, agriculture, interior, health and human services, labor, commerce, transportation and homeland security.

It also would include the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget , the administrators of NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency , the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission . Plus the president’s advisers on national security, homeland security, domestic policy and economic policy. The chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy would head the council.

However, NOAA, the nation’s primary ocean agency, which includes the National Ocean Service, the nation’s premier science agency for oceans and coasts; the National Marine Fisheries Service, which manages living marine resources; the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research , which studies climate, weather and air quality; and the National Weather Service — is missing from the task force’s list.

“I am mystified why NOAA has been exempted,” said Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe , the top Republican on the subcommittee.

“It was a surprise,” Sen. Maria Cantwell , D- Wash. , said in an interview. “I didn’t know it would be this sensitive.”

Cantwell chairs the oceans subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee . Her panel held a hearing on the issue last week.

“NOAA is the nation’s primary ocean agency,” NOAA administrator Lubchenco told the subcommittee. “Our name says it all.”

Created in 1970, NOAA does everything from issuing daily weather forecasts and severe storm warnings to monitoring the climate and managing fisheries. It includes a satellite office and a research arm. It operates two geostational satellites that monitor the Earth and a fleet of research ships that monitor the oceans.

Instead of being a freestanding agency like NASA or the EPA , however, NOAA is part of the Commerce Department . The commerce secretary would be a member of the National Ocean Council , but Cantwell and Snowe said that wasn’t good enough.

“It’s not the same,” Cantwell said, adding that the commerce secretary has far broader responsibilities than just oceans.

In recommending the creation of a National Ocean Council , the White House task force noted the web of federal, state, tribal, local and international regulations and interests and found a need for “high-level direction and guidance from a clearly designated and identifiable authority.”

The nation’s oceans, coastline and Great Lakes are regulated by 140 laws administered by 20 federal agencies, in what’s been called a “Swiss cheese” of overlapping authorities and sometimes conflicting missions.

The task force made its proposal for a National Ocean Council in an interim report released in September. A final report is due early next year.

Whatever its composition, one challenge for the council will be what’s called “marine spatial planning,” ocean zoning, or the marine equivalent of urban planning.

“It’s going to be a difficult process,” Nancy Sutley , the chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality , said during the Senate hearing. “We need to do it from the bottom up.”

Native American tribes and groups such as those that represent sport fishermen warned that plans have to be developed regionally because a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work.

A recent example of marine spatial planning involved the Coast Guard , NOAA and other agencies working to reroute shipping lanes near Cape Cod to minimize the chances of vessels colliding with North Atlantic right whales, but even that came with an unexpected twist.

“We were going to move the lanes into a site where there was an application for an offshore LNG plant,” said Adm. Thad Allen , the Coast Guard commandant, referring to liquefied natural gas.

Facebook Opens Green Data Center

SAN JOSE, CA — Fortune Data Centers’ San Jose facility earned the prestigious LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council last week, six months after opening the green facility.

With the certification, Fortune Data Centers has joined a very small number of LEED-rated data centers; the company estimated that it is one of only five such buildings in the United States.

The eight-megawatt data center can also brag a gold-star tenant: internet phenomenon Facebook confirmed that it is leasing some of the floor space in the facility, part of an ongoing expansion for the website, all of which has gone to green data centers, according to Data Center Knowledge.

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Fortune Data Centers’ facility earned kudos from not just the USGBC: San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed also lauded the company for helping the city meet its Green Vision goals, which include building 50 million square feet of green buildings, reducing the energy used per capita by half, and switching the remaining energy used to renewable energy by 2022.

Among the features of Fortune Data Centers’ San Jose facility that helped it earn LEED certification include:

• a Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) ratio of 1.37 at full load, far lower than the industry average of about 2.0;
• Diverting 96 percent of construction waste from landfill, leading to the recycling or reuse of over 1,100 tons of materials;
• Setting energy efficiency guidelines for procurement of uninterruptible power supplies and other hardware within the building.

“We believe companies shouldn’t have to pay extra for energy efficiency, rather they should realize a reduction in costs,” John Sheputis, CEO of Fortune Data Centers, said in a statement. “Fortune and our tenants are collaborating to maximize efficiencies, and our tenants receive 100 percent of the cost savings that result from saving energy.”

Fortune Data Centers previously made news for earning a $900,000 rebate from its electric utility for the energy efficiency of its facility. The award came as part of an incentive program from Pacific Gas & Electric’s High-Tech Energy Efficiency program.

Wesley Clark: Electric cars a national security issue

Clark: Electric cars a national security issue


During a speech today in Detroit, retired U.S. Army General and former presidential candidate Wesley Clark cast the effort to develop electric vehicles as a critical national security need that is essential to help the United States reduce its dependence on foreign oil.


The issue “is absolutely dead center in the bull’s-eye for national security,” Clark said during a three-day conference called “The Business of Plugging In,” which is being held at Motor City Casino in Detroit.

Clark also compared the current status of electric vehicles to the early stages of development for personal computers, cellular telephones and the Internet. He said the industry could be standing at the cusp of a similar technological revolution that could create jobs and boost the U.S. economy.

“We spawned a whole new industry off of personal computing,” Clark said. “We need that next big thing for America, and it could be right here at this conference. It could be in electric vehicle technologies.”

The conference has drawn more than 600 professionals from utilities, automotive companies and suppliers to discuss how to overcome infrastructure, development cost and policy issues so that electric cars can be a viable choice for consumers.

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