Researchers at Rice University in Houston say they have a solution, literally, to deal with sometimes difficult-to-recycle lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles, cellphones and other electronic devices.

Materials scientist Pulickel Ajayan and colleagues at a Rice laboratory say they have used an environmentally friendly deep eutectic solvent to extract recyclable elements from the metal oxides commonly used as cathodes in lithium-ion batteries.

The goal, researchers say, is to curtail the use of harsh processes to recycle batteries and also to keep batteries out of landfills.

The solvent, made from choline chloride and ethylene glycol, extracted more than 90 percent of cobalt from powdered compounds, and a smaller but still significant amount from used batteries, according to the researchers.

“Rechargeable battery waste, particularly from lithium-ion batteries, will become an increasingly menacing environmental challenge in the future as the demand for these through their usage in electric vehicles and other gadgets increases dramatically,” says Ajayan.

The researchers built small prototype batteries and found that cobalt could be recovered from the eutectic solution through precipitation or even electroplating to a steel mesh, with the latter method potentially allowing for the deep eutectic solvent itself to be reused.

“From a resource standpoint, it’s the most critical part. The battery in your phone will surely have lots of it. Lithium is very valuable too, but cobalt in particular is not only environmentally scarce, but also, from a social standpoint, hard to get.”