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

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