A new chemical process can transform waste sulphur into a lightweight plastic that may improve batteries for electric cars, reports a University of Arizona-led team. The team has successfully used the new plastic to make lithium-sulphur batteries and discovered other potential applications, including optical uses.
A new chemical process can transform waste sulphur into a lightweight plastic that may improve batteries for electric cars, reports a University of Arizona-led team.
The team has successfully used the new plastic to make lithium-sulphur batteries and discovered other potential applications, including optical uses.
"We've developed a new, simple and useful chemical process to convert sulphur into a useful plastic," lead researcher Jeffrey Pyun said.
Next-generation lithium-sulphur, 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 sulphur left over when oil and natural gas are refined into cleaner-burning fuels.
Although there are some industrial uses for sulphur, 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 sulphur.
"There's so much of it we don't know what to do with it," said Pyun. He calls the left-over sulphur "the garbage of transportation."
About one-half pound of sulphur 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 National Research Foundation of Korea, the Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, the American Chemical Society and the University of Arizona funded the research.
Pyun wanted to apply his expertise as a chemist to energy-related research. He knew about the world's glut of elemental sulphur at fossil fuel refineries -- so he focused on how chemistry could use the cheap sulphur to satisfy the need for good Li-S batteries.
He and his colleagues tried something new: transforming liquid sulphur into a useful plastic that eventually could be produced easily on an industrial scale.
Sulphur 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 sulphur.
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Electric car image via Shutterstock.