When energy researchers at Purdue University were moving into a new lab, opening box after box of new equipment packed in Styrofoam peanuts, they had a sudden epiphany: As chemical engineers, could they find a new use for the peanuts instead of throwing them in the trash?
“It took some time to figure out exactly how we could do something useful with it,” says Vilas Pol, who leads the lab. But after some experimentation, they had an answer. The humble packing peanut, it turns out, can be recycled into lithium batteries that actually work better than what’s currently on the market.
By heating the peanuts, the researchers were able to create thin sheets of carbon. Because the carbon is full of tiny pores, it can hold more energy than standard materials. And because it’s 10 to 20 times thinner than the graphite used in current lithium batteries, energy can also flow through it faster–leading to faster charging times.
“Right now, we have to charge our phones for three or four hours,” says Pol. “If we have materials like this, we can charge in 15 minutes and you’re ready to go. If we’re talking about electric vehicles, one of the big pains is the time it takes to charge the vehicle. This material could do that very effectively.”
Unlike conventional battery materials, which have to be made with very high temperatures over days, the process to convert the peanuts uses little energy. The only byproduct is water vapor. “Our process is a very simple, straightforward approach to create this material without harming the environment,” says Pol.
And, of course, it has the potential to keep billions of packing peanuts out of the trash. Few cities currently recycle the peanuts, since they take so much space to transport, and the resulting material isn’t worth much. The potential to create batteries could change that.
The process of collecting the peanuts could be fairly simple. “When you get a box of something with peanuts, you just take that device out of the box, and the peanuts remain,” he says. Then the box can be sent to a central location.
“We can get a huge amount of carbon out of these trashed peanuts,” says Pol.
The new material could also be used to create things like printer ink (it happens to be the perfect size for toner) or tires, among other products. The researchers are currently applying for funding to find more ways to use the peanuts.