Researchers led by Stefan Spirk from the Institute of Bioproducts and Paper Technology at Graz University of Technology have succeeded in making redox-flow batteries more environmentally friendly by replacing their core element, the liquid electrolyte, which are mostly made up of ecologically harmful heavy metals or rare earths – with vanillin.
Spirk and his team have refined lignin into vanillin into a redox-active material using mild and green chemistry without the use of toxic and expensive metal catalysts, so that it can be used in flow batteries. The process works at room temperature and can be implemented with common household chemicals.
Vanillin is also present in large quantities. Although it is native to Mexico, V. planifolia is now widely grown throughout the tropics. Vanilla is grown within 10-20° of the Equator. Most vanilla beans available today are from Madagascar, Mexico and Tahiti. Vanilla flavoring in food may be achieved by adding vanilla extract or by cooking vanilla pods in the liquid preparation.
Vanillin can be bought quite conventionally, even in the supermarket, but on the other hand we can also use a simple reaction to separate it from lignin, which in turn is produced in large quantities as waste product in paper production.
Spirk and colleagues are in concrete talks with Mondi AG, a leading global manufacturer of paper-based products, which is showing great interest in the technology.
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