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Scientists discover how to make lithium batteries from cow hair: 'The next steps are to scale production'

Their work could help reduce the negative environmental impact of two industries at once.

Their work could help reduce the negative environmental impact of two industries at once.

Photo Credit: iStock

A common all-purpose creature is apparently still living up to that distinction in the modern era. 

Researchers in Argentina have discovered how to incorporate cow hair into lithium-sulfur batteries, which could lead to a more sustainable and affordable product, as detailed by Inspenet. 

In order to do this, the scientists at Conicet and the National University of Córdoba (UNC) washed and deodorized hair they sourced from a local tannery. The material was then processed under extremely high temperatures using two different cooking methods. Sulfur was also added during this time. 

The result was a "small, watch-like battery" that required no cobalt or nickel for its cathode — the counterpart to the anode. Together, these two electrodes facilitate the electric charge. 

The breakthrough sparked optimism that the negative environmental effects of battery production could be greatly reduced, particularly as the world takes steps to transition away from dirty-energy fuels such as coal, oil, and gas.  

According to The Metals Company, three-quarters of the world's cobalt in 2022 was harvested from the Democratic Republic of Congo, while 50% of all nickel came from Indonesia. 

Mining the rare minerals is highly polluting, though, raising fears about how the protective balance of our planet could be impacted. The DRC and Indonesia are two of the 17 megadiverse countries that house 70% of global biodiversity, per PBS

Reports of human rights violations have also been major points of concern.  

However, cow hair is abundant in Argentina, which produced roughly 3.5 million tons of beef and veal in 2022, according to Statista. If unused, that waste releases methane when it breaks down, further contributing to the overheating of our planet. 

Researchers said they harvested around 187 pounds of hair from "each ton of processed cow skin," meaning their work could help reduce the negative environmental impact of two industries at once.  

Their lithium-sulfur battery took two years to make — with a pause during the COVID-19 pandemic — and has a patent pending that was filed by Conicet subsidiary YPF – Technologies in the United States.  

"The next steps are to scale production and connect the tannery and battery industries to generate a circular process. This is long term," Conicet researcher Victoria Bracamonte said in a UNC statement published by Inspenet. 

Ezequiel Leiva, researcher at Conicet and UNC, added that the product could be ready to go within 10 years and expects it will complement items already on the market.

"They are a very different technology from the current one," he said. "Development and testing on an industrial scale will take time. In any case, they will not replace current batteries either. They are likely to coexist."

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