Sulfur Based Batteries and Plastics to Alter Electric Vehicles Landscape?

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A plastic material is any of a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic organic solids that are moldable. Plastics are typically organic polymers of high molecular mass, but they often contain other substances. How about mostly sulfur? A new chemical process can transform waste sulfur into a lightweight plastic that may improve batteries for electric vehicles, reports a University of Arizona-led team. The new plastic has other potential uses, including optical uses. The team has successfully used the new plastic to make lithium-sulfur batteries.

A University of Arizona-led research team has discovered a simple process for making a new lightweight plastic from the inexpensive and abundant element sulfur. The team has already made a lithium-sulfur battery — the type of next-generation battery that is lighter and cheaper than those currently used in electric and hybrid cars.

The lithium—sulfur battery is a rechargeable battery, notable for its high energy density. By virtue of the low atomic weight of lithium and moderate weight of sulfur, Li—S batteries are relatively light; about the density of water. They were demonstrated on the longest and highest-altitude solar-powered airplane flight in August, 2008. Lithium—sulfur batteries may succeed lithium-ion cells because of their higher energy density and reduced cost from the use of sulfur.

The team has successfully used the new plastic to make lithium-sulfur batteries. “We’ve developed a new, simple and useful chemical process to convert sulfur into a useful plastic,” lead researcher Jeffrey Pyun said. Next-generation lithium-sulfur, or Li-S, batteries will be better for electric and hybrid cars and for military uses because they are more efficient, lighter and cheaper than those currently used, said Pyun, a UA associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry. The new plastic has great promise as something that can be produced easily and inexpensively on an industrial scale, he said.

The team’s discovery could provide a new use for the sulfur left over when oil and natural gas are refined into cleaner-burning fuels. Although there are some industrial uses for sulfur, the amount generated from refining fossil fuels far outstrips the current need for the element. Some oil refineries, such as those in Ft. McMurray in Alberta, are accumulating yellow mountains of waste sulfur.

About one-half pound of sulfur is left over for every 19 gallons of gasoline produced from fossil fuels, calculated co-author Jared Griebel, a UA chemistry and biochemistry doctoral candidate. The researchers have filed an international patent for their new chemical process and for the new polymeric electrode materials for Li-S batteries.

The international team’s research article, “The Use of Elemental Sulfur as an Alternative Feedstock for Polymeric Materials,” is scheduled for online publication in Nature Chemistry this month.

He and his colleagues tried something new: transforming liquid sulfur into a useful plastic that eventually could be produced easily on an industrial scale. Sulfur poses technical challenges. It doesn’t easily form the stable long chains of molecules, known as polymers, needed make a moldable plastic, and most materials don’t dissolve in sulfur. Pyun and his colleagues identified the chemicals most likely to polymerize sulfur and girded themselves for the long process of testing those chemicals one by one by one. More than 20 chemicals were on the list. They got lucky.

“The first one worked — and nothing else thereafter,” Pyun said. Even though the first experiment worked, the scientists needed to try the other chemicals on their list to see if others worked better and to understand more about working with liquid sulfur. They’ve dubbed their process “inverse vulcanization” because it requires mostly sulfur with a small amount of an additive. Vulcanization is the chemical process that makes rubber more durable by adding a small amount of sulfur to rubber.

The new plastic performs better in batteries than elemental sulfur, Pyun said, because batteries with cathodes made of elemental sulfur can be used and recharged only a limited number of times before they fail.

The new plastic has electrochemical properties superior to those of the elemental sulfur now used in Li-S batteries, the researchers report. The team’s batteries exhibited high specific capacity (823 mAh/g at 100 cycles) and enhanced capacity retention.

For further information see Sulfur Batteries.

Article by Andy Soos, appearing courtesy Environmental News Network.

About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.