Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Madison, WI) and the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis, MN) have discovered that the material at the heart of lithium-ion batteries has been shown to impair a key soil bacterium. The research is an indication that the growing use of new nanoscale materials used in rechargeable batteries that power portable electronics and electric and hybrid vehicles may have environmental consequences.
Led by UW-Madison chemistry Professor Robert J. Hamers, the researchers explored the effects of the compound nickel manganese cobalt oxide (NMC) - an emerging material manufactured in the form of nanoparticles that is being rapidly incorporated into lithium-ion battery technology - on the common soil and sediment bacterium Shewanella oneidensis .
"As far as we know, this is the first study that has looked at the environmental impact of these materials," says Hamers, who collaborated with the laboratories of University of Minnesota chemist Christy Haynes and UW-Madison soil scientist Joel Pedersen to perform the new work.
NMC and other mixed metal oxides manufactured at the nanoscale are poised to become the dominant materials used to store energy for portable electronics and electric vehicles. The materials, notes Hamers, are cheap and effective.
"Nickel is dirt cheap. It is pretty good at energy storage. It is also toxic. So is cobalt," Hamers says of the components of the metal compound that, when made in the form of nanoparticles, becomes an efficient cathode material in a battery, and one that recharges much more efficiently than a conventional battery due to its nanoscale properties.