Turning Old Lead Batteries Into New Solar Energy

MIT team's work could curb toxic waste while contributing to clean power

Used Batteries

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Used car batteries can leech chemicals and create lead pollution when they're incorrectly trashed. A team at MIT believes that this lead can be cut out of the waste stream entirely -- and put to good use creating emissions-free energy.

In newly published research, the scientists show that recycled lead from car batteries works as well as fresh lead when used in solar cells made with organolead halide perovskite film, a compound that is fast becoming competitive with silicon in solar power technology. The process is also cost-effective.

Quoting MIT energy professor Angela Belcher, a study co-author, an MIT press release notes that with time ticking down on lead-acid batteries in favor of lithium ion cells, we need to be thinking ahead on handling a looming toxic waste problem:

One motivation for using the lead in old car batteries is that battery technology is undergoing rapid change, with new, more efficient types, such as lithium-ion batteries, swiftly taking over the market. “Once the battery technology evolves, over 200 million lead-acid batteries will potentially be retired in the United States, and that could cause a lot of environmental issues,” Belcher says.

Today, she says, 90 percent of the lead recovered from the recycling of old batteries is used to produce new batteries, but over time the market for new lead-acid batteries is likely to decline, potentially leaving a large stockpile of lead with no obvious application.

The group's work demonstrates that the perovskite created from the lead in just one old car battery could provide materials for 30 households-worth of solar energy cells. Perovskite solar panels are also less energy-intensive to build compared to silicon-based cells, and the leaded film would be completely contained within other materials.

The research, "Environmentally-responsible fabrication of efficient perovskite solar cells from recycled car batteries," was recently published online by the journal Energy and Environmental Science.

The team has put this video online to demonstrate their process: