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Disposable Vape Pens: A Growing Environmental Threat, Warns Research

Disposable vape pens pose an environmental threat as discarded batteries retain high capacity, warns research.

Disposable vape pens pose a “growing” threat to the environment, warns new research.

Popular single-use e-cigarettes contain batteries that last hundreds of cycles after being discarded, say scientists.

While the lithium-ion batteries in disposable vapes are throw away after a single use, researchers found that they can continue to perform at high capacity for hundreds of cycles.

Disposable vape pens pose a “growing” threat to the environment, warns new research. DONN GABRIEL/UNSPLASH

The study, published in the journal Joule, was conducted by scientists from University College London (UCL) and the University of Oxford and supported by The Faraday Institution.

Professor Paul Shearing, of the University of Oxford and UCL, said: “The surprise for us were the results that pointed toward just how long these batteries could potentially cycle.

“If you use a low charge and discharge rate, you can see that for over 700 cycles, you still have more than 90 percent capacity retention.

“That’s a pretty good battery, actually. And these are just being discarded. They’re being chucked on the side of the road.”

Disposable e-cigarettes have soared in popularity in the UK since 2021, with a survey finding an 18-fold increase recorded between January 2021 and April 2022.

Within 15 months, their popularity among 18-year-olds rose from 0.4 percent to 54.8 percent.

But the surge in popularity of single-use e-cigarettes has led to “pressing” new waste problems, with around 1.3 million of the devices thrown away in the UK every week.

As a result, around 10,000 kilos (more than 22,000 lbs) of lithium from e-cigarette batteries wind up in UK landfills each year, threatening nearby waterways with toxic nickel, cobalt, and organic solvents.

Shearing said: “Early on, we got the notion that the batteries going into these e-cigs were likely to be rechargeable batteries.”

He says previous studies had not assessed how long the lithium-ion batteries in the products were capable of lasting.

To test their hunch, Shearing and his team harvested batteries from disposable e-cigarettes under controlled conditions and assessed them using the same tools and techniques that they use to study batteries in electric vehicles and other devices.

They examined the batteries under microscopes and used X-ray tomography to map their internal structure and understand the constituent materials.

By repeatedly charging and discharging the batteries, they determined how well the batteries maintained their electrochemical performance over time.

Disposable vape pens pose a “growing” threat to the environment, warns new research. CHIARA SUMMER/UNSPLASH

Shearing said they found that they could be recharged “sometimes many hundreds of times.”

He said: “As a bare minimum, the general public needs to be aware of the types of batteries going into these devices and the need to properly dispose of them.

“Manufacturers should provide the ecosystem for reuse and recycling of e-cigarette batteries, and also should be moving towards rechargeable devices as the default.”

Shearing and his team are also researching new, more selective ways to recycle batteries that allow individual components to be recovered without cross-contamination.

They are also looking at more sustainable battery chemistries, including post-lithium ion, lithium-sulfur, and sodium-ion batteries.

To address challenges across the entire battery supply chain, he says scientists should consider batteries’ life cycles when thinking about any of their applications.

Shearing added: “That permeates all the work we do, really, whether it’s a vape battery or whether it’s a battery going into an electric helicopter.

“It’s the same kind of thought process where we need to fully understand the life cycle of a battery device.”


Produced in association with SWNS Talker

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