From the landfill to lithium-ion batteries

January 15, 2010 3:30:29 PM PST
Plastic bags from the grocery store could soon help power your cell phone.A suburban company is developing new technology that's giving new life for the bags that usually ended up in a landfill.

Plastic bags can take hundreds of years to decompose in a landfill and they are among the most challenging items for recyclers to manage. But new technology could turn those inexpensive bags into a commodity that's highly valuable -- and green.

"Those are the carbon nanotubes which are working for this battery," said Vilas Ganpat Pol, Argonne National Laboratory.

This product that could change the price of a number of your favorite gadgets.

"My supervisor asked me can we do something with the plastics?" said Pol. The chemist at Argonne National Laboratory. For the last couple of years, he's been trying to find a good use for those menacing plastic bags.

"They are everywhere. They take hundreds of years to decompose," said Pol.

After much trial and error, the 35-year-old thinks he finally hit the jackpot. Pol cuts up a plastic bag, stuffs it in a reactor, adds a cobalt metal catalyst and then heats it all up to 700-degrees Celsius. After a three hour cool down, he gets carbon nanotubes. It looks like a simple black powder, but it may as well be gold. The substance can be used in lithium-ion batteries -- like the ones in your cell phone. It helps make them rechargeable. Pol's findings are significant because making these products conventionally -- from petroleum -- costs about a hundred dollars a gram. Pol's process could change the game.

"Cost wise they are very cheap, because I just turned them from the plastic," said Pol.

Argonne National laboratory said there are endless applications for this technology including use in electronics, for water purification -- even in cars, for cooling down rubber in tire treads. Argonne is now entertaining potential companies for a licensing agreement.