Most people interact with packing peanuts for about five seconds, just long enough to remove their Amazon delivery from its packaging.
Unfortunately, packing peanuts don’t decompose in five seconds, and a majority of them are not recycled. Polystyrene, a type of packing peanut that closely resembles Styrofoam, can take 200-300 years to degrade, according to Vilas Pol, an associate professor of chemical engineering.
Pol and Vinod Etacheri, a postdoctoral research assistant, noticed the wastefulness of packing peanuts while buying equipment for their new lab in January of 2014.
“If you get a big box, 95 percent is filled with those packing peanuts that you just put outside your door,” Pol said. “You don’t know what happens to that, so I started asking Vinod to bring it inside.”
From there, the research team found a way to integrate material from packing peanuts into electrodes for lithium-ion batteries like the ones found in cell phones. The peanuts are heated until they turn into a black carbon powder. This carbonaceous compound is then bound to a conductive copper foil with a polymeric binder.
After that, the carbon powder acts as a barrier between the cathode and the anode, or the negative and positive ends of the electrode.
“I take polystyrene and turn it into carbon nanoparticles and starch-based peanuts into carbon microsheets,” Etacheri said. “We are using 80 percent of the material and converting it into electrode material.”
The electrodes can then be incorporated into batteries, and due to the small size of the particles inside of it, the battery has a shorter recharging time and more storage capacity than ones that are currently available.
“Nobody will stop using packing peanuts because there’s no other solution that can bring your electronics and chemicals safely to you,” Pol said. “It will be continued and that’s why we want to find a solution, because there’s more and more need.”