Charging up a battery conference
Lead-acid batteries start car engines so well that we’ve used them in pretty much the same way for more than a century. Everyone always figured something clean and new would eventually come along to replace them. Instead, the demand for lead-acid just keeps growing.
But recycling all those old batteries requires smelting, where you melt lead to remove impurities. It’s dirty and costs a ton. You have to heat the lead to near its boiling point to get the right chemical reaction, and some of the lead evaporates, releasing pollutants that elude even the finest filters.
In 2013, we finally found a new way: using a chemical bath and electricity to purify the lead at room temperature. The day I presented our prototype to an industry conference, I had to stand at this podium and look out at all these people whose livelihood depended on lead smelting. “I’m here to tell you that what you’re doing is wrong,” I joked. “If I make it off the stage intact, I’ll consider that a win.”
But then a funny thing happened—I was mobbed with interest. To my delight, I realized the smelters aren’t just smelters; they’re battery recyclers. Smelting is the best tool they have. If there’s something better and cheaper, they want it. This cleaner process puts lead-acid front and center for the future.
as told to Mary Beth Griggs / illustrations by Tobatron