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Lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) are powerful, relatively inexpensive, and lightweight energy sources that are used to power a vast assortment of electronics and portable tools. Given this, it is not surprising that the number of LIBs in circulation is continuing to increase at a near exponential rate with technology advances. Subsequently, the number of fires caused by LIBs in the waste management process is also on the rise.
The Risks of LIBs
Many in industry know firsthand the risks associated with LIBs in waste/recycling. LIBs have high energy density and are made from materials that make them more prone to combustion or explosion when they are damaged. This is attributed to “thermal runaway”, a reaction in which the battery unexpectedly releases its energy and begins self-heating. This reaction can produce enough heat to ignite materials near the battery, even if the battery itself does not ignite.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is really taking notice. In a recent report, An Analysis of Lithium-ion Battery Fires in Waste Management and Recycling, EPA provides an evaluation of areas of risk associated with LIBs, as well as some excellent data and case studies of events that have occurred. The report discusses that physical damage to the LIB is one of the most common causes of thermal reaction and that much damage can occur at many different steps of the waste management system.
This information serves as a good reminder of just how risky and prevalent these batteries are—and how important it is to manage them appropriately.
While the EPA information is very good, the report doesn’t offer suggestions in how to improve operations and mitigate this type of risk—and it can be a very challenging risk to try to address.
KTL has staff with strong backgrounds working in recycling facility operations with hands-on experience developing strategies to minimize this risk. Solutions may be as simple as identifying and using special storage containers in designated areas, to as comprehensive as conducting onsite process evaluations to determine the best ways to segregate batteries and safely transfer them for further processing.
KTL does not see this problem with LIB management going away any time soon—nor does EPA. We continue to explore alternatives and work with companies to mitigate risk to the extent possible. Please contact us if you are facing challenges with LIB recycling and management or would just like a fresh set of eyes to evaluate your current risk level. We can work together to make your company operations safer.