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Study finds nanoparticle NMC material used in Li-ion batteries harms key soil bacterium

4 February 2016

Nanoparticle nickel manganese cobalt oxide (NMC), an emerging material that is being rapidly incorporated into lithium-ion battery cathodes, has been shown to impair Shewanella oneidensis, a key soil bacterium, according to new research published in the ACS journal Chemistry of Materials.

The study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin—Madison and the University of Minnesota is an early signal that the growing use of the new nanoscale materials used in the rechargeable batteries that power portable electronics and electric and hybrid vehicles may have unforeseen environmental consequences.

Nickel manganese cobalt oxide (NMC) is a class of lithium intercalation compounds with the composition LixNiyMnzCo1-y-zO2 (0 < x,y,z < 1). NMC compounds provide high performance at reduced cost, and are thus widely considered for large-scale implementation in electric vehicles. Further, nanoparticles yield enhanced lithium transport, better electrical conduction, and reduced fragmentation from mechanical stresses during lithium intercalation and de-intercalation.

Rapid, large-scale commercialization of NMC and related lithium intercalation materials in nanoparticle form increases the potential for environmental release and exposure during manufacture, use, and disposal. A single, modest electric vehicle with a typical ~24 kWh battery pack using NMC (specific capacity = 165 mAh/g at 3.8 V potential) contains >38 kg of nanoscale cathode material. With estimates of 20 million electric vehicles on the road by the year 2020, nanoscale metal oxides represent an emerging potential environmental contaminant.

In contrast to lead-acid batteries, little infrastructure exists for recycling Li-ion batteries, due in part to a lower economic incentive for recycling. Understanding the environmental behavior of the materials that comprise batteries can provide important insights into an comprehensive assessment of how to optimally use new materials to reduce energy usage and make more effective use of renewable sources.

—Hang et al.

For the study, the team used LixNiMnCoO2 (with x=1 corresponding to fully lithiated materials) due to its widespread use.

The genus Shewanella comprises Gram-negative bacteria that are distributed globally; Shewanella oneidensis MR-1 plays an important role in the cycling of metals in the environment and is a model system for environmental studies.

The study characterized the influence of NMC nanoparticles on S. oneidensis population growth and respiration, and linked these with corresponding changes in solution composition and NMC surface composition via X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy.

Subjected to the particles released by degrading NMC, the bacterium exhibited inhibited growth and respiration.

The researchers found that NMC nanoparticles in aqueous media under partial incongruent dissolution preferentially released Li+ and the transition metals Ni2+ and Co2+ into solution and left behind chemically transformed nanoparticles that are depleted in Ni and enriched in Mn. They demonstrated that the toxicity of NMC arises from the release of the transition metal ions in solution rather than the remaining transformed nanoparticles.

Shewanella oneidensis thrives on metal ions, converting them to metals such as iron that serve as nutrients for other microbes. The bacterium was shown to be harmed by NMC, which is produced in nanoparticle form and is poised to become the dominant material in the lithium-ion batteries that will power portable electronics and electric vehicles. Illustration: Ella Marushchenko/University Of Minnesota. Click to enlarge.

As far as we know, this is the first study that’s looked at the environmental impact of these materials.

—UW–Madison chemistry Professor Robert J. Hamers

Hamers collaborated with the laboratories of University of Minnesota chemist Christy Haynes and UW–Madison soil scientist Joel Pedersen to perform the new work.

Haynes noted that “it is not reasonable to generalize the results from one bacterial strain to an entire ecosystem, but this may be the first ‘red flag’ that leads us to consider this more broadly.

According to Hamers, one big challenge will be keeping old lithium-ion batteries out of landfills, where they will ultimately break down and may release their constituent materials into the environment.

Our results suggest that NMC entering aqueous environments (e.g., resulting from battery disposal into landfills) may act as a source of dissolved nickel and cobalt, potential bacterial toxicants, as well as other ions such as Mn and Li. This work provides additional motivation for efforts to develop and implement effective recycling strategies for lithium ion batteries. We suggest that by reducing dissolution of metals from NMC, its toxicity to bacteria and other organisms in natural environments can be reduced.

Ultra-thin (~1 nm thickness) surface coatings of Al2O3 and other stable oxides have been shown to reduce the reactivity of NMC cathodes and thereby improve the performance of NMC- containing lithium-ion batteries. Such coatings of water-stable oxides might also play an important role in mitigating the potential for environmental impact of NMC and related complex oxides. Data for Al2O3 dissolution suggests that at pH ~6 a 1 nm thick coating would require on the order of one year to dissolve. This suggests that surface coatings may also have an important role in the environmental impact of NMC and other complex oxides.

—Hang et al.

The group, which conducted the study under the auspices of the National Science Foundation-funded Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology at UW–Madison, also plans to study the effects of NMC on higher organisms.


  • Mimi N. Hang, Ian L. Gunsolus, Hunter Wayland, Eric S Melby, Arielle C. Mensch, Katie R Hurley, Joel A. Pedersen, Christy L. Haynes, and Robert J Hamers (2016) “Impact of Nanoscale Lithium Nickel Manganese Cobalt Oxide (NMC) on the Bacterium Shewanella oneidensis MR-1” Chemistry of Materials doi: 10.1021/acs.chemmater.5b04505

February 4, 2016 in Batteries, Electric (Battery), Sustainability | Permalink | Comments (14)


A lot of the stuff that goes into batteries is none too pleasant.

BYD's LiFePo may be about the best environmentally, but making them more than disposing of them has its issues, for instance producing the graphite.

Ever hear of recycling? Put a stiff deposit on lithium batteries and soda cans and I guarantee, the homeless squeegee men will learn auto mechanics and leave the cans alone.

The upside is that at least some research is funded into this area. Being diligent and recognising the importance of understanding the consequences of our technology forays (like the our ref?) is essential for early detection.

At what stage of development should new materials be subject to a barrage of certification procedures?

Without downplaying or overstating options it is known that there are many naturally occurring bioremedial organisms that will colonise toxic substances although that can take many years to establish. The same organisms can be cultivated and introduced to toxic sites to speed up the remediation process.

Then there is a possibility to discover and or engineer organisms that can convert these new nano materials.
It may be feasible for the tool kit to include specific re mediation organisms.

There would then be (theoretically) an area for exploring where a dormant seed organism be included within a biodegradable attachment.

For any answer to be found the most important step is the question.

Even a 20 year old traction battery is going to be very valuable and will be recycled. Nobody is going to be plowing these things into the soil.

Another good reason to go with lithium sulfur.

That industrial nano stuff may be worst than DDT, for the planet and living creatures? Our lungs and drinking water may not like it at all?

This will certainly not be the first time that we have been had for the well being of a few?

Can FCs and H2 be made and used with less side effects?

Grabat 1.000wh/kg-800wh/l.

Some people think a penthouse suite in a Donald Trump building equals success?

Success is achieving what you set out to do.
Some bank robbers and thieves are successful.

eci said:

'Even a 20 year old traction battery is going to be very valuable and will be recycled. Nobody is going to be plowing these things into the soil.'

Utterly absurd.

After secondary use in stationary storage, exactly what will they be valuable for?

There only residual value would lie in the cost of their raw materials, and of those only the Manganese and the cobalt would have much value at all.

If what can be raised for them does not cover the cost of the reprocessing for them, and it is very unlikely to, the temptation will be to do exactly that, dump them or plough them in.

BYD's LiFePo is in a stronger position, as none of the materials are either expensive or harmful, so they can indeed be dumped.

There are options.

Regulation makes mandatory for commercial operators to sort various hazardous wastes into appropriate stream. That includes white good sellers who offer a delivery and pick up of the old unit. Especially refrigeration equipment air con etc have international industry regulation and implementation.

It is far from perfect especially as the financial incentive is mostly by penalty. There are (I understand) people in the refrigeration industry making good money legally reselling banned gases into a regulated international market.

There is however too little or no incentive to encourage domestic or Not for profit level expansion into more areas.

The talk is to have a surcharge paid by importers and manufactures or point of sale business into a fund to improve the performance of recycling schemes.

There is strong resistance in some industries.

Automotive batteries, even the fairly inexpensive 12 variety, have the best recycling rate of any consumer good.

John Voelcker writes:
Who Knew? A Car Battery Is the World's Most Recycled Product

When the battery is worth several thousand dollars new, instead of $50, that gets better, not worse.

Who knew?

Lead Acid batteries

"..nearly 99 million lead-acid car batteries are produced each year..
Each of these contains 18 pounds of lead and one pound of sulfuric acid. While EHSO notes 90 percent of lead-acid batteries are recycled, those that are not will end up in landfills, where they can leak into the surrounding soil and air."
"nearly 99 million lead-acid car batteries are produced each year."

SO that leaves about 9 million that are not recycled and end up in land fills.
SO it IS important what kind of batteries we use.

From the GCR article:

"according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In the U.S. alone, about 100 million auto batteries a year are replaced, and 99 percent of them (p. 9) are turned in for recycling."

I totally agree it should be 100%

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