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New Discovery Could Revolutionize Sustainable Chemical Synthesis

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Sunday, August 20, 2023

A new discovery by the Polytechnic University of Milan opens up new perspectives in the field of sustainable chemical synthesis, promoting innovative solutions that allow...

A new discovery by the Polytechnic University of Milan opens up new perspectives in the field of sustainable chemical synthesis, promoting innovative solutions that allow...

Catalyst Graphic Politecnico di Milano

A new discovery by the Polytechnic University of Milan opens up new perspectives in the field of sustainable chemical synthesis, promoting innovative solutions that allow...

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Cobalt-Free Future: MIT’s New Organic Battery Material Could Revolutionize Electric Vehicles

Chemists at MIT have created a battery cathode from organic materials, which could reduce the electric vehicle industry’s dependence on rare metals. Many electric vehicles...

A new MIT battery material could offer a more sustainable way to power electric cars. Instead of cobalt or nickel, the new lithium-ion battery includes a cathode based on organic materials. In this image, lithium molecules are shown in glowing pink. Credit: MITChemists at MIT have created a battery cathode from organic materials, which could reduce the electric vehicle industry’s dependence on rare metals.Many electric vehicles are powered by batteries that contain cobalt — a metal that carries high financial, environmental, and social costs.MIT researchers have now designed a battery material that could offer a more sustainable way to power electric cars. The new lithium-ion battery includes a cathode based on organic materials, instead of cobalt or nickel (another metal often used in lithium-ion batteries).In a new study, the researchers showed that this material, which could be produced at much lower cost than cobalt-containing batteries, can conduct electricity at similar rates as cobalt batteries. The new battery also has comparable storage capacity and can be charged up faster than cobalt batteries, the researchers report. “I think this material could have a big impact because it works really well,” says Mircea Dincă, the W.M. Keck Professor of Energy at MIT. “It is already competitive with incumbent technologies, and it can save a lot of the cost and pain and environmental issues related to mining the metals that currently go into batteries.”Dincă is the senior author of the study, which was recently published in the journal ACS Central Science. Tianyang Chen PhD ’23 and Harish Banda, a former MIT postdoc, are the lead authors of the paper. Other authors include Jiande Wang, an MIT postdoc; Julius Oppenheim, an MIT graduate student; and Alessandro Franceschi, a research fellow at the University of Bologna.Alternatives to cobaltMost electric cars are powered by lithium-ion batteries, a type of battery that is recharged when lithium ions flow from a positively charged electrode, called a cathode, to a negatively electrode, called an anode. In most lithium-ion batteries, the cathode contains cobalt, a metal that offers high stability and energy density.However, cobalt has significant downsides. A scarce metal, its price can fluctuate dramatically, and much of the world’s cobalt deposits are located in politically unstable countries. Cobalt extraction creates hazardous working conditions and generates toxic waste that contaminates land, air, and water surrounding the mines.“Cobalt batteries can store a lot of energy, and they have all of features that people care about in terms of performance, but they have the issue of not being widely available, and the cost fluctuates broadly with commodity prices. And, as you transition to a much higher proportion of electrified vehicles in the consumer market, it’s certainly going to get more expensive,” Dincă says.Because of the many drawbacks to cobalt, a great deal of research has gone into trying to develop alternative battery materials. One such material is lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP), which some car manufacturers are beginning to use in electric vehicles. Although still practically useful, LFP has only about half the energy density of cobalt and nickel batteries.Another appealing option are organic materials, but so far most of these materials have not been able to match the conductivity, storage capacity, and lifetime of cobalt-containing batteries. Because of their low conductivity, such materials typically need to be mixed with binders such as polymers, which help them maintain a conductive network. These binders, which make up at least 50 percent of the overall material, bring down the battery’s storage capacity.About six years ago, Dincă’s lab began working on a project, funded by Lamborghini, to develop an organic battery that could be used to power electric cars. While working on porous materials that were partly organic and partly inorganic, Dincă and his students realized that a fully organic material they had made appeared that it might be a strong conductor.This material consists of many layers of TAQ (bis-tetraaminobenzoquinone), an organic small molecule that contains three fused hexagonal rings. These layers can extend outward in every direction, forming a structure similar to graphite. Within the molecules are chemical groups called quinones, which are the electron reservoirs, and amines, which help the material to form strong hydrogen bonds.Those hydrogen bonds make the material highly stable and also very insoluble. That insolubility is important because it prevents the material from dissolving into the battery electrolyte, as some organic battery materials do, thereby extending its lifetime.“One of the main methods of degradation for organic materials is that they simply dissolve into the battery electrolyte and cross over to the other side of the battery, essentially creating a short circuit. If you make the material completely insoluble, that process doesn’t happen, so we can go to over 2,000 charge cycles with minimal degradation,” Dincă says.Strong performanceTests of this material showed that its conductivity and storage capacity were comparable to that of traditional cobalt-containing batteries. Also, batteries with a TAQ cathode can be charged and discharged faster than existing batteries, which could speed up the charging rate for electric vehicles.To stabilize the organic material and increase its ability to adhere to the battery’s current collector, which is made of copper or aluminum, the researchers added filler materials such as cellulose and rubber. These fillers make up less than one-tenth of the overall cathode composite, so they don’t significantly reduce the battery’s storage capacity.These fillers also extend the lifetime of the battery cathode by preventing it from cracking when lithium ions flow into the cathode as the battery charges.The primary materials needed to manufacture this type of cathode are a quinone precursor and an amine precursor, which are already commercially available and produced in large quantities as commodity chemicals. The researchers estimate that the material cost of assembling these organic batteries could be about one-third to one-half the cost of cobalt batteries.Lamborghini has licensed the patent on the technology. Dincă’s lab plans to continue developing alternative battery materials and is exploring the possible replacement of lithium with sodium or magnesium, which are cheaper and more abundant than lithium.Reference: “A Layered Organic Cathode for High-Energy, Fast-Charging, and Long-Lasting Li-Ion Batteries” by Tianyang Chen, Harish Banda, Jiande Wang, Julius J. Oppenheim, Alessandro Franceschi and Mircea Dincǎ, 18 January 2024, ACS Central Science.DOI: 10.1021/acscentsci.3c01478

The potential decline of PVC in global markets

A comprehensive analysis reveals the environmental and health risks of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), prompting international efforts to curb its use. Nicola Jones reports for Yale Environment 360.In short:PVC, associated with carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting chemicals, is under scrutiny by environmentalists and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.The upcoming global plastics treaty aims to significantly reduce plastics pollution, possibly including a ban on PVC.Alternatives to PVC exist, but challenges remain in balancing cost, health, and environmental impacts.Key quote: "It’s the "worst of the worst" when it comes to plastics.— Judith Enck, policy expert with Beyond PlasticsWhy this matters: The reconsideration of PVC's place in our daily lives and industries is driven by its staggering impact on U.S. health and healthcare. The organization Beyond Plastics has welcomed the analysis calling it, "one of the most important chemical review processes ever undertaken by the EPA."

A comprehensive analysis reveals the environmental and health risks of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), prompting international efforts to curb its use. Nicola Jones reports for Yale Environment 360.In short:PVC, associated with carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting chemicals, is under scrutiny by environmentalists and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.The upcoming global plastics treaty aims to significantly reduce plastics pollution, possibly including a ban on PVC.Alternatives to PVC exist, but challenges remain in balancing cost, health, and environmental impacts.Key quote: "It’s the "worst of the worst" when it comes to plastics.— Judith Enck, policy expert with Beyond PlasticsWhy this matters: The reconsideration of PVC's place in our daily lives and industries is driven by its staggering impact on U.S. health and healthcare. The organization Beyond Plastics has welcomed the analysis calling it, "one of the most important chemical review processes ever undertaken by the EPA."

Melbourne supermarkets trial a new soft plastic recycling program

In Melbourne, 12 supermarkets are piloting a new soft plastic recycling scheme, aiming to succeed where the previous REDcycle program failed.Anya Phelan reports for The Conversation.In short:The trial follows REDcycle's collapse, focusing on "scrunchable" food packaging recycling in a smaller, more manageable scale.Australia's Soft Plastics Taskforce, formed post-REDcycle, is spearheading this initiative, exploring sustainable end-uses for recycled plastics.Challenges include the complex nature of soft plastic recycling and the need for local, decentralized solutions to improve efficiency.Why this matters:This initiative is crucial for reducing landfill waste and pollution, highlighting the need for innovative, local recycling solutions in tackling environmental challenges. It represents a significant step in sustainable waste management, potentially influencing national policies on recycling and environmental conservation.Chemical recycling “a dangerous deception” for solving plastic pollution.

In Melbourne, 12 supermarkets are piloting a new soft plastic recycling scheme, aiming to succeed where the previous REDcycle program failed.Anya Phelan reports for The Conversation.In short:The trial follows REDcycle's collapse, focusing on "scrunchable" food packaging recycling in a smaller, more manageable scale.Australia's Soft Plastics Taskforce, formed post-REDcycle, is spearheading this initiative, exploring sustainable end-uses for recycled plastics.Challenges include the complex nature of soft plastic recycling and the need for local, decentralized solutions to improve efficiency.Why this matters:This initiative is crucial for reducing landfill waste and pollution, highlighting the need for innovative, local recycling solutions in tackling environmental challenges. It represents a significant step in sustainable waste management, potentially influencing national policies on recycling and environmental conservation.Chemical recycling “a dangerous deception” for solving plastic pollution.

Making Chemistry Safer Is Worth the Price Tag

With chemical spills and other accidents a common occurrence, it’s becoming more expensive to maintain the status quo than to make chemistry safer 

Hazardous chemical spills like the one that happened in East Palestine, Ohio, last year when a train derailed, are the tip of the iceberg of our chemical pollution crisis. Scientists say we are rapidly approaching a “planetary boundary,” the point at which industrial chemicals are altering the “vital Earth system processes on which human life depends.” Current concerns regarding the global contamination of food, water and soils with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) demonstrate that the problems we face with toxic chemicals reach far beyond accidents.Indeed, the World Health Organization conservatively estimates that in 2019, two million lives and 53 million years of life were lost as a result of premature death, illness or disability from exposures to chemicals such as lead, arsenic and benzene. Researchers have estimated the health costs associated with exposure to just one class of chemicals—PFAS in the U.S.—to be at least $5 billion. This doesn’t include the billions of dollars estimated for remediation costs, particularly for contaminated drinking water systems. Another similar study finds the health costs of plastics in general to be nearly $250 billion.About 90 percent of chemical production is based on readily available fossil fuel–based organic chemistry, including many of the more than 10,000 chemicals used in making plastics. These chemicals have a wide range of potential health effects. In addition to contributing to chemical pollution, the chemical industry is also the largest industrial contributor to climate change through energy use and CO2 emissions.On supporting science journalismIf you're enjoying this article, consider supporting our award-winning journalism by subscribing. By purchasing a subscription you are helping to ensure the future of impactful stories about the discoveries and ideas shaping our world today.The chemical industry’s products are embedded in more than 96 percent of manufactured goods, but current-day industrial chemicals, the majority of which were created decades ago, were designed for cost and performance, not safety and sustainability. Such chemicals and the materials they compose come at significant costs to human, ecosystem and planetary health, costs that we all ultimately bear.Instead, we need to focus on sustainable chemistry—the development and application of chemicals and chemical processes and products that benefit current and future generations without harmful effects on humans or ecosystems. Thinking about chemistry this way could be the antidote to continued toxic rail disasters, PFAS contamination and other chemical pollution.However, changing current chemicals and materials will be challenging and costly because preexisting manufacturing facilities would have to be retired or rebuilt to accommodate new molecules and chemical processes. Plus, current chemical processes and manufacturing facilities are deeply embedded into global supply chains; this is called “incumbency.” For example, building a new large scale chemical plant can cost upwards of $1 billion. Research and development, piloting, building new manufacturing capacity, product reformulation, and regulatory and supply chain reviews and approvals all take time and resources. To industry leaders and shareholders, this puts safer, more sustainable chemicals and products at a competitive disadvantage.But without a shift in thinking and manufacturing, it will ultimately be more expensive not to convert chemistry to more sustainable processes and products, particularly for future generations. With the right policies, economic incentives and leadership, this shift could be easier than we think. For example, the International Monetary Fund estimates governments subsidize fossil fuels by more than $1.3 trillion per year globally, or $7 trillion, if external costs of climate change are included. That translates into about $19 billion dollars per day, more than enough to fundamentally transform chemistry.Political action matters: our current chemical industry grew from massive and sustained public-private investment and incentives from the 1940s to the 1960s. We could do this again. The wartime Synthetic Rubber Program built the domestic rubber industry in under three years. More recently, government leadership has promoted the renewable energy and the semi-conductor industries, and provided once-in-a-generation funding under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act; this is the type of coordinated funding we need to overcome investment barriers that could stymie sustainable chemicals and materials.In addition to direct funding of new facilities, governments worldwide can establish innovative taxes, fees, and incentives that can help level the playing field for sustainable chemicals and materials. Examples include federal incentives in the U.S. to grow biofuels, the Danish pesticide tax, the Swedish “bonus malus” system that discourages people from buying higher carbon-emitting cars by financially supporting them when they buy more environmentally friendly ones. There is also the California Non-Toxic Dry Cleaning Grant Program, which supports dry cleaners who are transitioning to nontoxic and non–smog forming cleaning methods by charging importers a fee for their incumbent problematic chemistry and the product, perchloroethylene (perc).These are just a few of the many programs and incentives states, the federal government and other nations could pursue in the name of cleaner chemistry.While government has a critical role in growing sustainable chemistry, so does private investment. As the health and environmental costs of chemicals have been mostly externalized, so too have the risks to investors. Highly coordinated business and investor actions to address climate change are beginning to change this trend and provide a similar model for growing sustainable chemicals and materials. Large settlements for damages caused by problem chemicals are beginning to shift investor thinking around the costs associated with toxic chemicals. A blueprint created by the University of Massachusetts Lowell Sustainable Chemistry Catalyst and the Investor Environmental Health Network outlines the economic rationale for investments in sustainable chemistry that not only address the risks but also the economic benefits.Addressing the impacts of our current chemicals and materials ultimately will require fundamental shifts in the way we create, use and manage the end of life of chemicals and materials—including major changes to feedstocks, molecules, manufacturing processes, and products. These will need to be staged over decades, given the long research and development arc, capital needs and adoption timelines in chemicals and materials. But we need this to address key priorities for sustainable chemistry (for example replacements to PFAS) and include transitional “better but not good enough” solutions. Small changes, like making benzene, a carcinogenic petrochemical building block, from renewable sources will not be enough.Of course, this transition will face significant resistance, given the limited availability of sustainable chemistry and the costs of developing, deploying and adopting them. And there will be dire predictions about government overreach, how industrial competitiveness will suffer, and how we won’t have safe drinking water, airplanes or computers without dangerous chemistry. As such, clarifying the externalized and subsidized costs of our current chemicals and materials and shifting incentives to verified sustainable chemistries is an important first step to making a strong economic case for the transition. As the synthetic rubber and Apollo programs have amply demonstrated, when national interests are at stake, governments, along with the private sector, are able to quickly and effectively create the economic and industrial policy conditions to drive outcomes. And when it comes to fossil fuels and petrochemistry, the only sustainable outcome for the health and wellness of the planet and people on it is the one that makes chemistry safer and cleaner.This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Testing regime meant to stop toxic chemicals going into NSW landscape products gamed by suppliers

Exclusive: Manufacturers retest contaminated soil fill until it ‘complies’ with regulations and can then be used at childcare centres, schools or parksGet our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcastA testing regime meant to stop toxic chemicals going into landscaping products in New South Wales has been gamed by suppliers who kept retesting samples until they passed.Waste facilities making soil fill from construction and demolition waste – called “recovered fines” – are required to test their product for hazardous contaminants and report results to the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) if they exceed legislated thresholds.43% of facilities were requesting retesting and were only doing so after they received a result that breached state regulationsWaste facilities were sending in samples for testing that looked very different to material EPA officials collected from their stockpiles, a separate 2013 report showsOne testing laboratory alleged it was asked by manufacturers “not to report the presence of suspected asbestos”Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup Continue reading...

A testing regime meant to stop toxic chemicals going into landscaping products in New South Wales has been gamed by suppliers who kept retesting samples until they passed.Waste facilities making soil fill from construction and demolition waste – called “recovered fines” – are required to test their product for hazardous contaminants and report results to the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) if they exceed legislated thresholds.But a 2019 investigation by the environment watchdog – obtained exclusively by Guardian Australia – found almost half of the manufacturers instead asked the laboratories to simply retest the samples until they achieved an acceptable result. On one occasion a sample was tested six times in total.Guardian Australia can reveal:43% of facilities were requesting retesting and were only doing so after they received a result that breached state regulations Waste facilities were sending in samples for testing that looked very different to material EPA officials collected from their stockpiles, a separate 2013 report shows One testing laboratory alleged it was asked by manufacturers “not to report the presence of suspected asbestos” The revelations will create further headaches for the Minns government which is already dealing with a snowballing crisis related to asbestos-contaminated mulch – which is covered by a separate set of regulations.Parks and schools have been closed while areas of hospitals and supermarkets have been fenced off. The scandal has led to the largest probe ever by the EPA with 130 staff working on the criminal investigation.Internal EPA documents obtained by Guardian Australia show the retesting of recovered fines samples had the effect of making it look as though products sold to consumers complied with state regulations, when they did not.In one presentation, the EPA wrote the practice of retesting created “type 1 errors in decision making – concluding the waste is compliant when in fact it is not”.Ian Wright, an environmental scientist and associate professor at Western Sydney University who has studied toxins in products such as recycled concrete, said retesting was “a real worry”.“That’s as logical as a doctor or pathologist retesting for a life-threatening illness, getting bad news five times and then on test six you get a different result and that’s the result you share with the patient,” he told Guardian Australia of the self-regulatory system. “How is that appropriate?”Recovered fines are a soil or sand substitute made from the processing of construction and demolition waste – including skip bin residue – after all large recyclable material has been removed.Waste facilities in NSW produce about 700,000 tonnes of recovered fines each year that are sold as fill for projects including landscaping, sporting fields and residential developments. The product is not allowed to be used on agricultural land or around water infrastructure.In one example uncovered by the 2019 EPA investigation, a facility asked a lab to retest a sample an additional five times for lead. Only the sixth and final test returned a favourable result of 68mg/kg – under the EPA’s absolute maximum concentration limit of 250mg/kg.The five other results ranged from 2,850mg/kg to 5,610mg/kg – between 10 and 20 times the limit. The facility discounted the first five measurements and used the sixth as evidence it had “passed”.The watchdog’s investigation found 43% of facilities were requesting retesting after breaches that included exceeding absolute maximum concentration limits for different types of contaminants and maximum average concentration limits.Requests were also made after asbestos was detected. Under the laws, facilities are not required to test for asbestos and the EPA investigation found only 29% were doing so.Guardian Australia revealed in late January that the EPA had known about concerns regarding recovered fines products for more than a decade, after two investigations found widespread breaches of regulations meant to limit the spread of contaminants such as lead and asbestos.The regulator walked away from a plan to tighten regulations after pushback from industry, despite noting there was a risk that up to 658,000 tonnes of “non-compliant material” could be used in the community each year, including on “sensitive land” such as residential sites, childcare facilities, schools and parks.Documents show the EPA was also aware retesting was occurring more than a decade ago when a 2013 investigation of the industry detected the practice.EPA investigators wrote in that report it “was apparent that reanalysis was the method of choice to deal with non-compliant sample results”.The 2013 investigation uncovered other concerning practices including “significant inconsistencies” – both visual and analytical – between samples some facilities provided to laboratories for testing and samples EPA officials collected purportedly from the same stockpiles.A sample collected by the EPA (left) compared with one submitted for testing by a manufacturer – purportedly from the same source. Photograph: Environment Protection AuthoritySide-by-side photos in the report show the visual differences, with the samples some facilities sent to laboratories appearing to contain more clean soil than the recovered fines EPA officials collected on site.skip past newsletter promotionSign up to Afternoon UpdateOur Australian afternoon update breaks down the key stories of the day, telling you what’s happening and why it mattersPrivacy Notice: Newsletters may contain info about charities, online ads, and content funded by outside parties. For more information see our Privacy Policy. We use Google reCaptcha to protect our website and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.after newsletter promotionThe report states that given the short timeframe between the facilities’ own sampling and the EPA sampling, the inconsistencies were best explained by: “Consultants not competently sampling materials; non-representative sampling by facility operators; laboratories not competently handling/analysing received samples; and/or deliberate misrepresentation by facilities and/or laboratories of recovered fines produced.”The EPA officials who worked on the 2013 investigation also reported that one laboratory said staff “often find suspected asbestos-containing material in samples of recovered fines submitted for analysis”.“According to the laboratory representative, they have been advised by the sample submitters not to report the presence of suspected asbestos-containing material as it is not a specific requirement in the [regulations],” the report stated.How asbestos-contaminated mulch sparked the NSW EPA's biggest investigation - video“This situation is a perverse interpretation … as any waste containing asbestos is, by definition, asbestos waste. This is also an interpretation that can potentially put end users of recovered fines at unnecessary risks.”The report recommended soil fill made from skip bin materials only be used as cover material at rubbish dumps. It recommended regulations be amended to explicitly prohibit recovered fines from being sold to landscapers and landscape material suppliers. The recommendations weren’t adopted.According to the EPA’s 2019 study, 57% of facilities had asbestos in their recovered fines.The NSW Greens environment spokesperson, Sue Higginson, said the practices uncovered in the 2013 and 2019 investigations were “evidence of regulatory failure”.“The buck starts and stops with the EPA,” she said.An EPA spokesperson said when the authority became aware that labs were finding asbestos in recovered fine samples but were asked not to report it by clients “we reinforced their obligations to always report asbestos presence in samples when detected”.“We also advised that any laboratory that does not report the known presence of asbestos may have supplied false or misleading information,” the spokesperson said on Friday, adding penalties of up to $1m could apply.“If the EPA receives a report that information being provided in lab reports or waste classification reports is false and misleading, the EPA investigates these allegations and has prosecuted these types of incidents in the past.”The authority said that since 2013 it had “undertaken a series of reforms to the regulation of the construction and demolition sector to improve the quality of the industry”.The EPA’s executive director of regulatory practice and services, Stephen Beaman, said “retesting is not best practice and we want to stamp it out”.“Retesting [is] only acceptable if there is an actual laboratory or analytical error that would mean the test result was not reliable and needed to be repeated,” he told Guardian Australia.“To reduce this practice, the EPA provided industry with best practice sampling and reporting information and resources to improve staff training.”Beaman said the EPA was conducting site inspections and sampling to assess the compliance of facilities that produce recovered fines. The results of that enforcement campaign are expected by the end of March 2024.The campaign is not examining historical sampling data or looking at retesting.The management of asbestos in recovered fines remains under review by the state’s chief scientist whose report is expected later this year.

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