There’s some good news coming out of the University of California, Riverside regarding sand and lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries, which I will temper with some additional information later in this posting.
First, the good news is that researchers have a new non-toxic, low cost way to produce a component in lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries according to a July 8, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,
Researchers at the University of California, Riverside’s Bourns College of Engineering have created a lithium ion battery that outperforms the current industry standard by three times. The key material: sand. Yes, sand.
“This is the holy grail — a low cost, non-toxic, environmentally friendly way to produce high performance lithium ion battery anodes,” said Zachary Favors, a graduate student working with Cengiz and Mihri Ozkan, both engineering professors at UC Riverside.
The idea came to Favors six months ago. He was relaxing on the beach after surfing in San Clemente, Calif. when he picked up some sand, took a close look at it and saw it was made up primarily of quartz, or silicon dioxide.
His research is centered on building better lithium ion batteries, primarily for personal electronics and electric vehicles. He is focused on the anode, or negative side of the battery. Graphite is the current standard material for the anode, but as electronics have become more powerful graphite’s ability to be improved has been virtually tapped out.
A July 8, 2014 University of California at Riverside news release by Sean Nealon, which originated the news item, describes some of the problems with silicon as a replacement for graphite and how the researchers approached those problems,
Researchers are now focused on using silicon at the nanoscale, or billionths of a meter, level as a replacement for graphite. The problem with nanoscale silicon is that it degrades quickly and is hard to produce in large quantities.
Favors set out to solve both these problems. He researched sand to find a spot in the United States where it is found with a high percentage of quartz. That took him to the Cedar Creek Reservoir, east of Dallas, where he grew up.
Sand in hand, he came back to the lab at UC Riverside and milled it down to the nanometer scale, followed by a series of purification steps changing its color from brown to bright white, similar in color and texture to powdered sugar.
After that, he ground salt and magnesium, both very common elements found dissolved in sea water into the purified quartz. The resulting powder was then heated. With the salt acting as a heat absorber, the magnesium worked to remove the oxygen from the quartz, resulting in pure silicon.
The Ozkan team was pleased with how the process went. And they also encountered an added positive surprise. The pure nano-silicon formed in a very porous 3-D silicon sponge like consistency. That porosity has proved to be the key to improving the performance of the batteries built with the nano-silicon.
Now, the Ozkan team is trying to produce larger quantities of the nano-silicon beach sand and is planning to move from coin-size batteries to pouch-size batteries that are used in cell phones.
The research is supported by Temiz Energy Technologies. The UCR Office of Technology Commercialization has filed patents for inventions reported in the research paper.
Here’s a link to and a citation for the research paper,
Scalable Synthesis of Nano-Silicon from Beach Sand for Long Cycle Life Li-ion Batteries by Zachary Favors, Wei Wang, Hamed Hosseini Bay, Zafer Mutlu, Kazi Ahmed, Chueh Liu, Mihrimah Ozkan, & Cengiz S. Ozkan. Scientific Reports 4, Article number: 5623 doi:10.1038/srep05623 Published 08 July 2014
While this is good news, it does pose a conundrum of sorts. It seems that supplies of sand are currently under siege. A documentary, Sand Wars (2013) lays out the issues (from the Sand Wars website’s Synopsis page),
Most of us think of it as a complimentary ingredient of any beach vacation. Yet those seemingly insignificant grains of silica surround our daily lives. Every house, skyscraper and glass building, every bridge, airport and sidewalk in our modern society depends on sand. We use it to manufacture optical fiber, cell phone components and computer chips. We find it in our toothpaste, powdered foods and even in our glass of wine (both the glass and the wine, as a fining agent)!
Is sand an infinite resource? Can the existing supply satisfy a gigantic demand fueled by construction booms? What are the consequences of intensive beach sand mining for the environment and the neighboring populations?
Based on encounters with sand smugglers, barefoot millionaires, corrupt politicians, unscrupulous real estate developers and environmentalists, this investigation takes us around the globe to unveil a new gold rush and a disturbing fact: the “SAND WARS” have begun.
Dr. Muditha D Senarath Yapa of John Keells Research at John Keells Holdings comments on the situation in Sri Lanka in his June 22, 2014 article (Nanotechnology – Depleting the most precious minerals for a few dollars) for The Nation,
Many have written for many years about the mineral sands of Pulmoddai. It is a national tragedy that for more than 50 years, we have been depleting the most precious minerals of our land for a few dollars. There are articles that appeared in various newspapers on how the mineral sands industry has boomed over the years. I hope the readers understand that it only means that we are depleting our resources faster than ever. According to the Lanka Mineral Sands Limited website, 90,000 tonnes of ilmenite, 9,000 tonnes of rutile, 5,500 tonnes of zircon, 100 tonnes of monazite and 4,000 tonnes of high titanium ilmenite are produced annually and shipped away to other countries.
… It is time for Sri Lanka to look at our own resources with this new light and capture the future nano materials market to create value added materials.
It’s interesting that he starts with the depletion of the sands as a national tragedy and ends with a plea to shift from a resource-based economy to a manufacturing-based economy. (This plea resonates strongly here in Canada where we too are a resource-based economy.)
Sidebar: John Keells Holdings is a most unusual company, from the About Us page,
In terms of market capitalisation, John Keells Holdings PLC is one of the largest listed conglomerate on the Colombo Stock Exchange. Other measures tell a similar tale; our group companies manage the largest number of hotel rooms in Sri Lanka, own the country’s largest privately-owned transportation business and hold leading positions in Sri Lanka’s key industries: tea, food and beverage manufacture and distribution, logistics, real estate, banking and information technology. Our investment in Sri Lanka is so deep and widely diversified that our stock price is sometimes used by international financial analysts as a benchmark of the country’s economy.
Yapa heads the companies research effort, which recently celebrated a synthetic biology agreement (from a May 2014 John Keells news release by Nuwan),
John Keells Research Signs an Historic Agreement with the Human Genetics Unit, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo to establish Sri Lanka’s first Synthetic Biology Research Programme.
Getting back to sand, these three pieces, ‘sand is good for li-ion batteries’, ‘sand is a diminishing resource’, and ‘let’s stop being a source of sand for other countries’ lay bare some difficult questions about our collective future on this planet.