Battery Experiment Ends Up Producing Metals

Sometimes the best experiments are the ones that don’t end up going as planned. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is used to this kind of thing, and one of their latest studies have come up with something fascinating that could help combat climate change.

The researchers that include Donald Sadoway, Huayi Yin and Brice Chung were working on a brand new battery, as Sadoway said “We were trying to develop a different electrochemistry for a battery” that uses all-liquid and high temperatures that has been under development for several years. “We wanted to investigate the utility of putting a second electrolyte between the positive and negative electrodes,” he said.

What they ended up with wasn’t the result they were looking for, but it’s something they will gladly settle for. Sadoway said “We found that when we went to charge this putative battery, we were in fact producing liquid antimony instead of charging the battery.” Antimony is a metal that has not been used much recently, but was once used for cosmetics dating all the way back to ancient times. There aren’t many uses for Antimony, but the researchers said that their accident could result in new ways to produce much more useful metals that include copper.

So how would this affect climate change, you may ask? Smelting of metals like copper and nickel in the traditional way can can produce many greenhouse gases that are responsible for global warming. Using this new form of smelting proves to be much more efficient and non-harmful to the environment. The process that the researchers used included antimony sulfide, which acts as a conductor for electrons.

While it doesn’t sound simple and efficient to someone that doesn’t work in the field, the researchers were surprised by just how simple it was and that a similar discovery was made in the development of aluminum. The result of the experiment created a pool of 99.9 percent pure antimony with sulfur gas at the top that could be gathered and used in the metal development. That is a big deal as sulfur combines with oxygen in the regular smelting process that creates harmful greenhouse gases.

Sadoway wrote that “As opposed to conventional extraction practices, direct sulfide electrolysis completely avoids generation of problematic fugitive emissions, significantly reduces energy consumption, increases productivity in a single step process and is broadly applicable to a host of electronically conductive transition-metal chalcogenides.” Sadoway also said that “steel making is the number one source of anthropogenic carbon dioxide,” paving the way to decreased greenhouse gases.

Not only would this help the environment as a whole, but it would create a lower cost for commonly used metals as they become more available. Copper has become a target for criminals as it can be quite expensive and is used on wiring. The criminals will strip the copper and sell it to scrapyards to make money. Copper has a very high melting point at 1,085 degrees Celsius compared to 631 for antimony. With a new production of smelting developed by the researchers, that problem might be a thing of the past, though they do still need to adjust their antimony smelting procedure to that of a much higher temperature.