Lead is a high toxic material that causes a host of medical problems and has even been associated with spikes in violent crime. That’s why governments have outlawed lead in paints and gasoline, and why battery manufacturers here are obliged to recycle their product. Reusing the lead keeps it out of the environment.
But what happens as we switch to new types of non-lead batteries, like lithium-ion batteries that go into electric cars? Won’t we have a glut of lead on our hands, with all its potential to cause harm?
Not if we find a new use for it–which is what researchers at MIT think they might have. They think lead from batteries can be used in the production of a new generation of solar cells made from perovskite, a mineral first discovered in Russia in the mid-1800s. Perovskite is a highly promising material for the solar industry, because it already offers high energy efficiency (it converts solar energy to electricity at just shy of 20%). It’s cheaper to work with than the silicon in today’s cells. And it’s highly flexible: It can create cells that are 100 times thinner than human hairs and bend them right back on themselves.
The drawback–because there’s always a drawback–is that the current manufacturing process involves lead (the actual material in the cell is called organolead halide perovskite). That’s why the team at MIT, including professor Angela Belcher and graduate student Po-Yen Chen, looked to old batteries as a lead source. See what they came up with in the video here:
It’s a pretty straightforward process that starts with sawing open the battery’s thick plastic cover (don’t try this at home) and involves just a few steps. One battery, though, could be enough for 30 solar cells, the researchers say.
The MIT team has no plans to commercialize the idea. Instead, it will be up to companies like Oxford PV, in the UK, to take up the concept. It is actually working on a perovskite cell that is lead-free (for obvious reasons). But Chen says that technology currently only offers 5% efficiency and isn’t stable for very long.
So, there may be uses for lead batteries yet.