We depend on rare Earth minerals like lithium to make the rechargeable batteries that power our smartphones, laptops, drones, electric cars and a host of other electronic devices.
But lithium is rare and recycling the mineral is a labor-intensive job that requires toxic chemicals and high temperatures.
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Now researchers have figured out that fungi can do the job of extracting the lithium -- as well as cobalt -- in an environmentally safe and efficient way.
"Fungi are a very cheap source of labor," said Jeffrey Cunningham of the University of South Florida, who lead the study.
Cunningham and Valerie Harwood tested three different fungi as party of their research.
First, they took apart the battery and then pulverized the cathode, the part that supplies the current.
Next, they mixed in a fungus. As the microbes went to work feeding, they generated organic acids including citric and oxalic that leached out 85% of the lithium and 48% of the cobalt into a kind of acidic goo.
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Using fungi to extract the minerals was the first step in this research, a proof of concept that shows it can work.
The next step is to extract the rare minerals from the goo. But Cunningham is positive about going forward.
"We have ideas about how to remove cobalt and lithium from the acid, but at this point, they remain ideas," he says. "However, figuring out the initial extraction with fungi was a big step forward."
As far as Cunningham can tell, he and Harwood are the first scientists to turn to fungi for the job.
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