Beyond the Hill

Vanderbilt University students, professor build a battery made from scrap metal

Tatiana Diaz | Contributing Illustrator

Graduate students and a professor at Vanderbilt University have teamed up to build a battery made from scrap metal and other household objects that anybody can make at home.

Under the guidance of Professor Cary Pint, Vanderbilt graduate students Andrew Westover and Nitin Muralidharan conceived the idea to build a battery out of junk. Westover said they chose to build a scrap metal battery because millions of tons of metal waste are generated annually and the researchers wanted to use the waste they produced for good.

“If we could use junk to make incredibly useful products such as batteries,” Westover said, “we effectively provide an economical route to overcome this challenge.”

The researchers want average, everyday people to make these batteries at home from objects you can find at Wal-Mart or a hardware store, Muralidharan said.

“If everybody can do it, it becomes as simple as cooking,” Muralidharan said.

The battery made from junk isn’t patented, and the creators have no plans to patent it. Westover called the battery “open source.”

“That’s the problem with battery research,” Muralidharan said. “All the major advances are covered by patents and industry standards. We want to make it available to everybody and the general public.”

The technology for the battery wasn’t invented by Pint, Muralidharan and Westover. Their inspiration came from the “Baghdad Battery,” a nearly 2,000-year-old technology that used a copper tube and iron rod with water-based electrolytes to make one of the first working batteries, Muralidharan said.

Electronics like cellphones use lithium-ion batteries for power, which are laden with toxic materials and often end up creating tons of waste annually, Muralidharan said. The junk battery uses non-toxic metals like iron and aluminum to reuse metals from home and reduce scrap metal waste.

In comparison to a lithium-ion battery, the junk battery is much safer, Westover said. Samsung made headlines earlier this year for lithium-ion batteries in Galaxy Note 7s catching fire. Westover said their junk battery cannot catch on fire.

“What makes us different is that we’ve reinvented 2,000-year-old technology and added a modern twist to it, making it comparable to standard batteries,” Muralidharan said.

The junk battery can be coupled with renewable energy sources such as solar and hydroelectric power to help power homes and keep them off the standard electrical grid, which relies on non-renewable sources like coal, Muralidharan said.

“The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, so we need to pair them with batteries to make up for the times when they can’t produce energy,” Westover said.

Batteries have three components: an anode (metal), a cathode (a different metal) and an electrolyte (a solution with salts dissolved in it). The battery is made of anodized steel (anode), anodized brass (cathode) and potassium hydroxide dissolved in water (electrolyte), Westover said. Applying voltage to the solution moves electrons from the anode to the cathode and creates energy.

The simple design of the battery allows anybody to create one in a do-it-yourself fashion, Westover said. Westover said it could have a large impact on poorer nations in Latin America and Africa that do not have the resources for large-scale battery manufacturing.

The most exciting thing to Westover was the possible impact the battery could have on the future of energy.

“It opens up an entire new realm of battery possibilities,” Westover said, “From ocean water batteries, to aluminum can batteries, to the do-it-yourself design where anyone could make their own batteries for their house.”

Making a battery only took the researchers a few hours, Westover said. Testing the battery to see if it was safe to use within a home took about three months, Muralidharan said.

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