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Chicago area researchers study ways to recycle used batteries

Chicago area researchers study methods for recycling used batteries
Chicago area researchers study methods for recycling used batteries 03:42

LEMONT, Ill. (CBS) – Every day, many of us unplug and rely on batteries.

They are critical. CBS 2's Joe Donlon got a rare look inside a facility in Chicago's southwest suburbs, where researchers from Argonne National Lab study what happens to those batteries when we're done with them.

They're used in almost everything from cars to computers to phones. It's hard to imagine life without lithium-ion batteries.

"They're basically everywhere across the world," said Albert Lipson, a principal materials scientist at Argonne.

Lipson's specialty is research to figure out what people do with batteries when they're done with them.

Donlon: "How big an issue is battery recycling today?"

Lipson: "So it's a big issue in a lot of ways."

He does the work at Argonne and is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. It's a sprawling campus tucked away in Lemont where some of the brightest minds in the country have worked for 75 years on new discoveries that will improve lives. Lipson's team is researching ways to effectively and efficiently recycle used batteries.

"We're just trying to find a better way to do it that's cheaper, faster, and without any of the environmental consequences," Lipson said.

The researchers have already made important strides in recovering several key elements that comprise a battery.

Their focus is on recoverable metals, like cobalt, which is only mined in a few places around the world where there are often concerns over child labor and unsafe working conditions.

"Eventually we can get to a point where we can recycle enough that we don't have to mine very much material anymore," Lipson said.

And Lipson said many of the batteries used today aren't recycled.

"We think something like 10% of the batteries that could be recycled are being recycled," he said.

Donlon: "Wait, only 10% of batteries that could be recycled are being recycled now?"

Lipson: "Yeah."

Donlon: "Where are they going otherwise?"

Lipson: "Most are in your drawers at home, cars. A lot of folks are just storing those batteries, sort of waiting for recycling to become really profitable and easy for them."

So how does it happen?

Lipson showed CBS 2 the first step in the process, where the parts of the battery get pulled apart. He then showed the aspirator.

"We take that material out and then keep running it through more and more processing until we get down to nice, pure materials," he said.

The process is the future of battery recycling: capturing and reusing nearly all the materials used to make new batteries. There are important ramifications for the country, Lipson said, environmentally and even politically.

"One of the main reasons we want to recycle as a nation is right now we're getting a lot of our materials from China, who does a lot of the refining of these metals right now," he said. "As well as other countries that are at risk for having supply chain shortages. So for the security of the country, we need to have our own sources of all these metals so we can make batteries even if something happens across the world that might limit our supply."

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