Packing peanuts are quite innocuous in their shapes, but quite wastage-prone in their usage. And unfortunately, in spite of their bad biodegradable credentials (because of expanded polystyrene material), the peanuts do end up in landfills after we are done with our packages. Fortuitously, two scientists – Vilas Pol and Vinodkumar Etacheri from Purdue University have potentially found a way around this wastage predicament, by making use of the polystyrene peanuts in rechargeable batteries.
The question naturally arises – how so? Well, the researchers broke down the chemical constituents of the packing peanuts by heating them at a high temperature of 900 degrees Celsius. This resulted in the ‘stripping down’ of the peanuts into carbon microsheets and nanoparticles – that can be used as an alternative to graphite anodes conventionally used in Li-ion batteries. And interestingly, the new polystyrene-derived anodes are touted to be more effective with 15 percent higher electricity storage capacity.
Now beyond this scope of nifty utilization, the breakthrough can be seriously crucial when seen from the perspective of environmental effects. To that end, according to one of the researchers Professor Vilas Pol – in current terms, packing peanuts can take up to 100 years to breakdown in landfill conditions, while only 10 percent of them are credibly recycled because of high costs. And, even beyond the slow scope of biodegradability, the materials pose other risks, as iterated by the scientist –
Outside in a landfill, potentially harmful substances in the peanuts, such as heavy metals, chlorides and phthalates, can easily leach into the environment and deteriorate soil and water quality. The starch-based alternatives also contain chemicals and detergents that can contaminate ecosystems.
But with this technology, more than 50 percent of peanuts that end up in landfills, can be utilized for rechargeable batteries. More importantly, the breaking down process of expanded polystyrene is also fairly simple that would allow mass-scale access to the aforementioned carbon-based electrodes. In other words, the packing peanut might just be the ‘energy-rich’ yet sustainable answer to the mobile devices of the future.