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Research conducted by a joint team from University College London (UCL) and the University of Oxford, supported by The Faraday Institution, highlights the emerging environmental danger posed by disposable vape pens. The study reveals that these single-use e-cigarettes incorporate batteries with extended life cycles, persisting even after disposal.

Lithium batteries in e-cigarettes pausing environmental challenges

The study, led by Professor Paul Shearing from the University of Oxford and UCL, revealed surprising results regarding the extended cycling potential of discarded batteries. With a low charge and discharge rate, the batteries exhibited over 700 cycles while retaining more than 90% capacity. This suggests a significant lifespan for these discarded batteries, which are often improperly disposed of on the side of the road.

The usage of disposable e-cigarettes in the United Kingdom has surged dramatically since 2021, as indicated by an 18-fold surge between January 2021 and April 2022. Among 18-year-olds, usage skyrocketed from 0.4% to 54.8% within 15 months. This rapid growth has resulted in significant waste management challenges, with around 1.3 million devices discarded each weekly in the UK.

Approximately 10,000 kilograms (over 22,000 pounds) of lithium from e-cigarette batteries are disposed of in U.K. landfills annually, posing a substantial environmental threat. The risk involves toxic elements such as nickel, cobalt, and organic solvents potentially contaminating nearby water sources. Professor Shearing emphasizes the rechargeable nature of the batteries in e-cigarettes, which was not thoroughly investigated in earlier studies on the longevity of lithium-ion batteries in these products.

Vape batteries could be recharged 100 times

In a study, researchers removed batteries from disposable e-cigarettes and conducted controlled tests using tools like microscopic examination and X-ray tomography. Analyzing internal structures and materials, they found the batteries could be recharged “sometimes many hundreds of times.”

Professor Shearing emphasized public awareness about proper disposal and urged manufacturers to facilitate reuse and recycling, advocating for rechargeable devices as the default to mitigate environmental impact.

Researchers are exploring sustainable battery chemistries (post-lithium ion, lithium sulfur, sodium ion) and developing selective recycling methods to prevent cross-contamination. Prof Shearing advocates considering the entire battery life cycle for solutions.