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Student Jumps At Research Opportunity

Steven Tyrrell jumped at the chance to work on a science and engineering project that had an environmental benefit, was with a local company - and, he says, unique to New Zealand.

He is part of a joint project between Pacific Lithium Ltd and the University of Auckland to recycle lithium. The rare metal is recycled from batteries used in items such as laptop computers, camcorders, cellphones and personal organisers. The project aims at developing the means to turn what would normally be dumped, into energy that might one day cheaply power hybrid electric vehicles.

Mr Tyrrell, 27, is a University of Auckland chemical engineering student aiming at a PhD. His project at Pacific Lithium is supported by Technology New Zealand's Graduates in Industry Fellowship (GRIF), under which students do research projects with businesses for their degrees.

"This [GRIF scheme] benefits all parties by combining access to the facilities and expertise of the university, with the practical aspects of private enterprise," Pacific Lithium's research and development vice-president Paul Pickering says. Mr Tyrrell says the project provided a good opportunity to put his engineering skills to work.

"Lithium is very popular for batteries because it combines high voltage and high energy with light weight," he says. "But there is the problem of what to do with them once they've been used up." Dr Pickering says that extracting lithium economically is key to the firm's goal of reducing the batteries' price by 75 percent. "That means lithium batteries to power hybrid electric vehicles can then become viable," he says.

Hybrid - petrol or diesel/electric-powered - vehicles are becoming popular in Japan, he says. "It just about doubles their range." The world's supply of lithium, which is the lightest metallic element, comes as a concentrated solution from a Chilean lake high in the Andes ranges. Dr Pickering says that Pacific Lithium has also found "a significant source" recently high on the Tibetan Plateau.

Mr Tyrrell says he is working on building specialist equipment for a pilot extraction plant.

"We don't cut open the used batteries ourselves. A company in the United States does that and ships us a lithium-rich extract material, which we process using our hybrid purification system to recover the lithium. "Lithium is extremely dangerous in the air. It catches fire. What we get is a toxic sludge. So I mix water with it to extract the lithium using specialist equipment." He says that neither the concept nor technology is new, "but we're adapting what's already there. What we're doing is unique to this country".

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