Callie Babbitt, an assistant professor at Rochester Institute of Technology’s Golisano Institute for Sustainability, has received the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program Award from the National Science Foundation to study the sustainable management of lithium-ion batteries that are discarded after use in electric vehicles and modern consumer electronics.
The CAREER Program is an NSF-wide activity that supports junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations. Such activities, the foundation states, build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.
Babbitt will use the $400,000 award over the next five years to investigate potential environmental impacts of reusing, recycling and disposing of lithium-ion batteries after they have been used in electric vehicles. The increasing popularity of electric and hybrid vehicles has received a lot of attention related to their potential benefit for the environment — not to mention money saved at the gas pump — but much less thought has been given to how to manage and recycle the systems powering them, according to Babbitt.
“If we don’t take a proactive approach to understand when and in what quantities these batteries might enter the waste stream, then we have the potential for a major waste challenge down the road,” says Babbitt, referring to the lithium-ion battery — one of today’s fastest growing types of rechargeable batteries due, in part, to their light weight and high-energy storage capacity. “There are many unknowns when it comes to understanding the environmentally responsible way to recycle or recover this type of waste.”
Babbitt says her research, which will begin this summer, will develop a range of waste management scenarios that reflect these unknowns, including how quickly electric vehicle technology is adopted, how long the batteries are expected to last, and what materials are contained inside the battery cell itself.
Some materials in lithium-ion batteries, such as cobalt, lithium and manganese, are expected to be in high demand in the future, so the ability to recycle them from batteries may offer cost savings, minimize energy consumption and reduce U.S. reliance on importing materials for new batteries. “Our domestic recycling infrastructure is currently not prepared to handle the wide variety of different battery chemistries, materials and form factors anticipated,” Babbitt says. “We will be looking to see if other recycling systems, like those in place for electronic waste or lead acid batteries, can inform a way forward in developing policies and technologies that result in the most environmental and economic benefits.”
Babbitt says this project is also designed to have far-reaching benefits in the classroom and beyond. To ensure her research is fully realized, educational materials related to the project will feed back into courses in the Golisano Institute for Sustainability, be developed into case studies for the New York state battery industry, and be used to increase public awareness of electric vehicle and battery technology.
Babbitt will also partner with the Women in Engineering Program at RIT to develop hands-on, sustainability-oriented labs for summer programs offered to girls in grades K-12 and to incoming RIT female engineering students. “We are excited about incorporating this research in WE@RIT’s outreach programs connected to the ‘energy and the environment’ theme,” says Jodi Carville, director of the WE@RIT program. “The partnership will enrich our sustainability curriculum and help inspire future female engineers from elementary school through incoming freshmen at RIT.”
The NSF CAREER Award marks the latest recognition for Babbitt’s research. The RIT assistant professor earned the AT&T Technology and Environment Award in 2011 for leading research efforts aimed at reducing the footprint of the information and communication technology industry.
Prior to coming to RIT, Babbitt was a postdoctoral research associate at Arizona State University. She received her Ph.D. and master’s degree in environmental engineering from the University of Florida, and her Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology.