02 Environmental Research

Environmental Research

2020 Topic: Sustainability


Electrical batteries are used all around us in a multitude of electrical and electronic devices, from heart pacers to smoke detectors, smart phones, cars, submarines, and the International Space Station. Batteries vary not only in brand, size and appearance, but also in their chemical and mechanical design, capacity, voltage, capability to be recharged, and many other characteristics. No matter if a battery is single-use or rechargeable, it eventually reaches the end of its life and must be disposed of. Huge numbers of batteries, recyclable or not, end up in the landfill.



Part 1 - Conduct literature research to address the following:

  • What chemical and electrical principles are batteries based on? Who made the first battery and how?
  • What processes take place when a battery is charged and then discharged?
  • What are the most common types of batteries based on their chemical makeup and design?
  • What makes a battery rechargeable? What determines the lifespan of a rechargeable battery?
  • How is the capacity of batteries expressed and measured?
  • Under what charging and discharging conditions do the batteries last the longest?
  • Discuss chemical elements and substances that are used to make batteries in terms of their toxicity and other hazards.
  • Give examples of batteries used in various applications and the requirements imposed on those batteries. What are the tradeoffs between efficiency, price, safety and environmental friendliness?
  • Which are the most/least efficient (per weight) and most/least expensive battery types.
  • Investigate instances when a malfunctioning or a failure of batteries caused accidents, disasters, economic losses or led to negative environmental consequences.
  • What types of batteries are typically recycled and what criteria are used to decide which types of batteries to recycle?

Part 2 - Conduct original research

  • Learn about the zinc-carbon battery mechanical design and chemical composition. What is the function of zinc? What other chemicals and materials are involved in making a zinc-carbon battery and what are their functions.


WARNING: do not attempt to disassemble any battery other than zinc-carbon. Using other batteries will result in an automatic disqualification from the competition.  


  • Acquire several zinc-carbon batteries (a minimum of three will be needed for the experiment). Body type D would work the best, e.g., https://www.amazon.com/Panasonic-Batteries-Super-Heavy-Carbon/dp/B01N8VN....
  • Decide on how to discharge a battery safely. Discharge two batteries fully, one using a higher current and one using a lower current. Can you come up with a way of measuring the battery capacity when discharging it?
  • Disassemble three batteries: one fresh and two that were discharged using high and low loads. Carefully recover metal zinc from the batteries and determine its weight.
  • Determine the fraction of metal zinc remaining in each battery (relative to fresh battery)
  • Make conclusions about the effect of the load on the efficiency of utilization of zinc in the battery


Part 3 - Report of Student Understanding and Research Findings

A research paper that demonstrates an understanding of the information obtained from the literature research above and includes the following:

  • A description of the principles used to design batteries.
  • An argument for or against recycling batteries which are not currently recycled.
  • Proper citations to credible reference material.

Event Day

Teams will make a short presentation via PowerPoint/ Slides or a poster. Presentations will be scheduled for the morning of the Chemistry Olympics (6 minutes maximum: 3 minute prepared presentation + 3 minutes Q&A). This presentation should focus solely on the results obtained in Part 2 and should highlight the students' understanding of battery function as a function of design and composition, and how the latter two determine the battery performance. Students must relate their understanding of the chemical and physical processes that take place during battery discharge to their experimental findings. Specific laboratory data collected should be presented to the judges in a graphical/ pictorial manner, when appropriate.  Conclusions from experimentation should be clearly supported by the data provided.



Learn about the requirements concerning Primary Sources, formatting and citations for your research paper: Research Guidelines and Requirements

The Environmental Research Paper must be received by the Director of the NJCO by the deadline indicated in: Requirement Overview.


Written report 40% total

  • Accuracy of technical component(s).
  • Depth and accuracy of thermal transfer characterization.
  • Demonstration of understanding how chemical composition and design results in varying battery capabilities and performance.
  • Support of argument for or against recycling of currently non-recyclable batteries.  The argument must include evidentiary statements and be grounded in good reasoning.
  • Quality of references and appropriate citations.

Experiment and Results 20% total

  • Evidence of good scientific method
  • Clear experimental procedure
  • Graphical analysis of results

Presentation, 40% total

  • Technical knowledge of subject
  • Presentation quality,
  • Answers to questions