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article imageLithium battery component poses environmental risk

By Tim Sandle     Feb 10, 2016 in Environment
A component from lithium batteries — used to power laptops and smartphones — has been found to affect the ecosystem by inhibiting a beneficial bacterium that process toxins.
The research comes as the use of lithium batteries continues to rise alongside the growth in portable electronic devices. Moreover, with motor vehicles, the use of larger batteries is set to grow as hybrid cars become more common.
The component of concern is nickel manganese cobalt oxide (NMC). This component, manufactured in the form of nanoparticles, is a key component of many modern day batteries. The material is of a low cost, especially given the current price of nickel.
When batteries are discarded, such as through landfill, the component leaks out over time and it has been shown to act against a common soil bacterium called Shewanella oneidensis.
The microorganism plays an important role in reducing poisonous heavy metal ions (such as selenite) and it therefore plays an important role in environmental regulation. If numbers fall, more dangerous chemicals that seep from landfill sites could pose a greater risk. The bacterium plays a key role as a bioremediator.
The evidence was collected based on laboratory studies using the compound and soil bacteria, varying levels of the compound and species numbers. Further work is to be undertaken to see the effect upon gene regulation and to determine if species that are affected end up rendering other types of organisms ineffective in terms of their role of processing pollutants. Importantly, the results should not be over-generalized at this stage to say all soil bacteria that provide an ecologically useful role will be similarly affected – this requires further study.
Lead researcher, Professor Robert J. Hamers told Controlled Environments Magazine: “As far as we know, this is the first study that’s looked at the environmental impact of these materials.”
A short-term fix will be with keeping lithium-based batteries out of landfills. However, this places other waste disposal concerns on the agenda. Longer term, alternative compounds may need to be considered (providing regulators and manufacturers take any notice of the findings.)
The study was a joint effort between scientists working at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Minnesota. The research has been publicized in the journal Chemistry of Materials. The research paper is titled “Impact of Nanoscale Lithium Nickel Manganese Cobalt Oxide (NMC) on the Bacterium Shewanella oneidensis MR-1.”
More about Lithium ion batteries, Batteries, Bacteria, Soil, Landfill
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