Everything about fossil fuels–from extraction to refinement and combustion–is dirty and dangerous. When imagining the future of clean fuels and transportation, fossil fuels almost never enter in to the picture, but new research might be a reason to change that assumption.

Scientists at University of Arizona are working on a new chemical process that transforms waste sulfur, a nasty byproduct of the fossil fuel industry, into a lightweight plastic that may improve batteries for electric cars.

batteries waste sulfur
Image via Jared Griebel/ Pyun lab, University of Arizona

Sulfur, despite being terribly stinky, actually has some practical uses in our world. We need it to make gunpowder, matches, and fireworks, as well as fungicide and insecticide in agriculture and disinfectant in medicines. Unfortunately, the amount of waste sulphur produced by the fossil fuel industry far outstrips these needs.

Finding a way to use this waste product to fuel a transportation revolution would be a huge achievement, and it’s what motivates  lead researcher Jeffrey Pyun.

They’ve dubbed the process “inverse vulcanization” because it requires mostly sulfur with a small amount of an additive. Vulcanization is the chemical process that makes rubber more durable by adding a small amount of sulfur to rubber.

The new plastic performs better in batteries than elemental sulfur, Pyun said, because batteries with cathodes made of elemental sulfur can be used and recharged only a limited number of times before they fail. The new plastic has electrochemical properties superior to those of the elemental sulfur now used in Li-S batteries, the researchers report. The team’s batteries exhibited high specific capacity (823 mAh/g at 100 cycles) and enhanced capacity retention.

Not surprisingly, several companies have already expressed interest in the next-generation lithium-sulfur, or Li-S, batteries.

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