Argonne scientists' groundbreaking efforts to tackle climate change

While Monday is Earth Day, global warming is something many of us think about year-round.

In a FOX 32 Special Report, chief meteorologist Emily Wahls finds out what a group of local researchers is working on to fight some of the causes and effects of climate change.

The winds of climate change are blowing at the world-renowned Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont.

"In the Chicago area, we’ll be experiencing higher temperatures, more frequent heat waves, more intensive thunderstorms. In the wintertime, more intense winter storms," said Yan Feng, a principal atmospheric and climate scientist at Argonne.

That’s just a few of the possible climate conditions Argonne researchers are predicting we will see in the next 20 to 30 years.

Feng and her team in Argonne’s Atmospheric Science and Climate Research Department are generating incredibly detailed forecast models using some new and improved supercomputers.

"The climate model has evolved to resolve those predictions in a much finer granularity. So for instance, now, we can predict the temperature change, thunderstorms, in a grid box of four kilometer by four kilometer resolution," Feng said.

In case you were wondering, four kilometers is equal to just 2.5 miles.

If you are also wondering if climate change alone is to blame for those predicted climate conditions, Feng said the jury is still out.

"If we are using this new technology, we are able to cut the amount of CO2 [carbon dioxide] that we are releasing in the atmosphere," said Argonne chemist Max Delferro.

In his lab, Delferro’s been mixing up a new way to upcycle plastic.

"The idea is really to use an untapped, huge amount of plastic waste that now we divert. We send it to the landfill to make new chemicals that are important for everyday life," Delferro said.

The proprietary technology Delferro helped develop turns plastic from everyday items like a padded envelope into a valuable liquid.

"This lubricating oil can be used in engine car, as your lubricant. Maybe in five, 10 years, all that oil instead of coming from crude oil is coming from plastic waste," Delferro said.

Just to name a few other possibilities, Delferro said this liquefied plastic could also be used to make cosmetics and candles.

"We’re focusing on lithium-ion batteries," said Jessica Macholz, a principal material scientist at Argonne.

And not just the ones you find in your laptop or cell phone but the ones that power electric cars and figuring out the best way to recycle them.

"We’re doing the research now so when a lot of these vehicles reach their end of life in 10 or 15 years, we’re ready with the technologies and the technologies are developed and matured enough to be able to do the cost-effective recycling of batteries," Macholz said.

Macholz showed Fox 32 how they shred these batteries and then sort through all the little pieces.

"There are some critical materials in lithium-ion batteries," Macholz said. "So, these are materials that we don’t mine or produce in the U.S. They’re materials we rely on other countries for. These are things like lithium, nickel, and cobalt."

Macholz said having our own supply of these critical materials is crucial to our daily lives and the Earth.

"The impact on the environment is that we would still be mining these materials from the ground if we are not getting them back from batteries. And the idea is if you are doing the recycling over time, you are doing less and less mining," she said.

"If at any point, somebody decides to cut our supply of materials off, we can’t build more batteries and that can really be an issue."

Once a lithium-ion battery has been shredded, Macholz said those pieces can used to make another battery or in other applications.

She also added Argonne is working with the auto industry to get these recycled battery parts back into circulation.