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Process could help to turn 80 million tons of trash into a valuable commodity

Rice is a staple crop of much of the world, but it's also a big waste generator.  On average 20 percent of rice by weight is discarded.  These dry, inedible husks are estimated to account for 80 million metric tons a year (out of a current annual rice yield of 422 million metric tons).

Tough and abrasive, the husks (also known as hulls) could only be used in low-cost materials such as fertilizer additives or bed soil.  But South Korean researchers think they've devised a way to cut down on the amount of agricultural waste from rice farming, by transforming the husks into a more expensive finished product.

A team at the Chungnam National University has extracted silica from the silicon-rich husks to convert into silicon for battery anodes.  

While nearly identical to sand from a molecular standpoint, rice silicon is deposited by the plant in porous nanolayers as a defense against insects and fungi.  That means that to extract the valuable material, researchers had to use a multi-step process involving acid and heat treatment.

Rice Hulls
Rice hulls can make great anodes, with a bit of TLC, it turns out [Image Source: Melvin Pereira]

However, the process appears to pay off, yielding high-grade electronics ready silicon.  The resulting yield is reportedly especially desirable for battery anodes due to its electrochemical characteristics.

The research team has published [abstract] their processing breakthrough in the prestigious peer-review journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Sources: PNAS, Herald Sun News

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Wait, what?
By SublimeSimplicity on 7/17/2013 9:11:02 AM , Rating: 2
the valuable material

We're talking about silicon here, right? The 2nd most abundant element in the earth's crust. The element that is cheap as dirt, because IT ACTUALLY IS dirt?

Find a cheap alternative to the copper or aluminum in a battery and then you have a discovery.

RE: Wait, what?
By ForceCredit on 7/17/2013 10:02:34 AM , Rating: 2
If we're being snarky here, I suppose I should point out that aluminum is also pretty much everywhere. Nearly every rock you look at is composed largely of silica and/or alumina. Aluminum is relatively expensive because of the large amount of power used during its production.

RE: Wait, what?
By Paj on 7/17/2013 10:53:35 AM , Rating: 2
Abundance != supply.

Aluminium was once more valuable than gold, because it was so difficult and expensive to refine. It wasn't until new technologies and refining processes allowed it to be obtained easily, and thus fall in price.

Similarly, silicon must be mined and refined from ores. This new method, if commercialised, could provide new sources of silicon to areas where mining or refining facilities aren't economically justifiable.

Plus, its a novel use for what was previously defined as a waste product.

RE: Wait, what?
By SublimeSimplicity on 7/17/2013 11:13:25 AM , Rating: 2
Step 1) Get dessert sand
Step 2) Heat it up
Step 3) Silicon

I highly doubt this new method is cheaper than just importing the sand if you don't have it.

RE: Wait, what?
By ClownPuncher on 7/17/2013 11:30:33 AM , Rating: 2
Wow, silicon production is just sublime in its simplicity.

RE: Wait, what?
By Paj on 7/17/2013 11:42:03 AM , Rating: 2
This new process apparently creates electronics grade silicon though, which is much purer than that obtained from sand/silica.

Creating electronics grade silicon is a much more involved and more expensive process, as it needs to be as pure as possible. If this new method can reduce the cost of obtaining that material by using waste rice husks, than that's pretty cool.

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