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Geek-Up[08.20.10] -- Turning Trash Bags into Battery Anodes and Researching the Gut Microbiome

August 20, 2010 - 5:18pm


Did you know that every year, Americans use more than 100 billion plastic bags and that only about 13 percent of the bags are recycled? Not only is that a lot of waste, but the polyethylene plastic bags – which are non-biodegradable and made from nonrenewable resources (crude oil and natural gas) – are one of the most challenging items for the recycling industry to manage.

Argonne Scholar Dr. Vilas Pol didn’t feel like waiting the hundreds of years it would take for the plastic bags to decompose, so he figured out a way to convert the bags into carbon nanotubes that can be used as components for lithium-ion batteries. That’s right: thanks to Dr. Pol, those pesky grocery bags could potentially help power our cars. Watch Dr. Pol explain more below:

The technology is one of the cheapest and most environmentally-friendly ways to grow nanotubes, reducing the amount of waste going into landfills and potentially resulting in less-expensive batteries. In addition, Pol’s method can be applied to other notoriously annoying plastic products, like water bottles, to clean up more environmental nuisances.

While large companies manufacture much of the glassware found in labs – the basic beakers, flasks and test-tubes – scientists often need nonstandard equipment for their specific experiments, which is where glassblowers like Russell Lewis come in.

Photo Credit Idaho National Laboratory

Lewis has been working with scientists at Idaho National Laboratory for over a decade, making specialty glassware that requires both artistry and know-how to meet the experiments’ needs. The innovative ideas require thoughtful execution. Lewis explains, "They'll give me their concept, I usually have to figure out how to make it work." See Lewis in action >

In stomach-churning news, it turns out we have approximately three pounds of bacteria living in our gut. Thankfully, most of these bacteria are helpful and influence things like our immune system development and metabolism. Because these tiny stowaways have such an impact on our health, scientists at Argonne took a closer look and determined the three-dimensional structure of one of these bacterial enzymes, finding it plays a fundamental role in digestion by breaking down sugar polymers to simple glucose. This important discovery could help scientists and doctors better understand the impact of these organisms on diseases like diabetes. Learn how >

Scientists at Ames Laboratory have developed a new process to make batteries that are both “greener” and more cost-efficient. Neodymium iron boron magnets – found in every computer, and every hybrid and electric vehicle as well as a wide array of consumer, commercial and even military products – make up about $4 billion of the magnet industry worldwide. However, over the years production has shifted outside the U.S. to low-cost-producing countries. The new process from Ames Lab has the potential to produce the permanent magnets economically here in the U.S., without the environmentally unfriendly byproducts that result from traditional manufacturing methods.

Senior metallurgist Karl A. Gschneidner, Jr., who co-developed the process, explains: “Neodymium iron boron magnets represent perhaps one of the most important use of rare earth elements. They’re the most powerful magnets in the world.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: This blog entry was updated on 08/23/10 to correct the amount of plastic bags used to 100 billion. The amount was previously incorrectly identified as 100 million.