Seshan Brothers Receive Provisional Patent for Recycling Process
Dec 01, 2016 07:40AM
By Jill Cueni Cohen
Sanjay and Arvind with their display at the U.S. Patent Office.
Battery recycling is a common practice in most other countries, but in the United States, 90 percent of all batteries will end up in a landfill. Fox Chapel brothers Arvind and Sanjay Seshan researched this national dilemma and came up with a solution that has garnered the interest of the country’s major battery manufacturers—and they’re only in middle school.
Arvind, 12, and Sanjay, 14, are Dorseyville Middle School students by day, but to the rest of the world, they’ve become The Seshan Brothers; internationally renowned FIRST LEGO League champions and founders of EV3Lessons.com, which provides programming lessons for LEGO® MINDSTORMS® robots to more than 100,000 users in 160 countries. They are also the inventors of numerous robots such as PIX3L PLOTT3R, a LEGO printer.
When the boys approached Thomas Bjarnemark, CEO of Battery Solutions, with an invention that could revolutionize the way batteries are recycled in the U.S., he was intrigued. Battery Solutions is the largest collector and sorter of waste portable batteries in the United States.
According to Bjarnemark, batteries containing hazardous substances such as lead, mercury or cadmium are a disaster for our environment when discarded in a landfill. “But even nontoxic batteries, such as alkalines, are important to recycle in order to recover material we otherwise would need to mine once again,” he noted, adding that the material is of low value, which makes battery recycling too costly. “That’s why Battery Solutions, for many years, has invested in both technology and processes to make our operations as efficient as possible. That’s also why we are interested in every possible invention in this area.”
Arvind and Sanjay reached out to Call2Recycle and TerraCycle to learn about paid and free used battery collection systems and discovered that battery manufacturers cover the cost of the collection for Call2Recycle. “We visited collection locations at Best Buy, Home Depot and Staples and discovered that the collection boxes are sometimes hidden and that people rarely follow the rules, such as placing alkalines in a rechargeable-only box,” said Sanjay, noting that collection locations in the U.S. are not in places people visit on a daily basis, like a school, grocery store or street corner.
However, that was only part of the problem. “One-third of the cost of the batteries is the process of sorting batteries out by chemistry,” explained Arvind, noting that different types of batteries have different chemistries, such as lithium ion, alkaline, and nickel cadmium, and they all have to be recycled in different ways.
“Lithium ion batteries can explode and are dangerous if they come in contact with each other,” said Arvind. “By law, you're not allowed to throw those out.”
Presently, batteries are sorted by hand. But Arvind and Sanjay developed a technical solution that uses invisible ink, detectable with UV light, that can be applied to labels. They call it “Invisi-Sort” and have already received a provisional patent, thanks to the pro-bono efforts of patent attorney Dennis Smalley, who noticed their invention when the boys were in St. Louis for the FIRST LEGO League competition last year and decided to lend a helping hand.
Bjarnemark was also impressed. “Battery manufacturers have been reluctant to let anyone dictate how the batteries should be labelled,” he explained, adding that the Seshan’s solution would add only a small cost for the manufacturers. “This would make our work, as a battery sorter and recycler, much easier. We also believe that the ability to sort multiple battery types and to line up several batteries on a conveyor at once are solutions that additionally will reduce the costs associated with recycling batteries.”
It typically takes between six months to 10 years for a battery to reach recycling, so it would take a long time before the battery recycling industry could entirely rely on such a system, noted Bjarnemark, adding that legislation would also have to be passed before such measures could be instituted.
Battery Solutions invited the boys to see their operations in Michigan and then offered to help jumpstart a battery recycling program in Fox Chapel by providing a tube to collect old batteries. They placed the receptacle at Cooper-Siegel Community Library.
Susan Herald of the library’s Children's Department reported that the first receptacle filled up quickly, and another one is needed. “This service has proven to be a great convenience for our patrons,” she said.
“Zinc, manganese, paper, plastic… these materials can be recovered and then used to make other products or used to make new batteries,” said Sanjay. “From a social perspective, it's really sad that Americans throw 90 percent of their batteries away in the garbage. It's our own fault, though, because of few laws, and the fact that there aren’t enough places that take them.”