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A Word About Recycling with Ollie Maier

Sunday, September 8, 2019

We’ve probably all heard about the problems the lithium ion batteries are having relating to fire and health risks. Now, from a recent Resource Recycling newsletter, I found the problems of these batteries are accelerating in operations worldwide and at a near runaway rate.

For example, the California Product Stewardship Council, reported that such batteries are the primary source of fires at waste facilities. And unfortunately, these lithium ion batteries are being used in more and more types of electronic devices.

If you have traveled by air recently, you know the Federal Aviation Authority has even banned lithium ion batteries from being checked into luggage because of the fire risk.

Makes one wonder, why exactly does this material pose such a threat? And what are the techniques for reducing the impact and risk of fire and other incidents?

“Lithium-ion battery design is a blueprint for catastrophic failure," the article said. "The electrolytes in these products are flammable and can ignite when the battery is shorted and overheated.”

Part of the problem is that a shorted battery produces its own oxygen through a chemical reaction. This oxygen, together with its flammable contents, can often result not only in a substantial fire, but explosions.

How big an explosion? Using an average laptop battery as an example, it can contain 900 kilojoules per kilogram of stored energy. This energy, when exploding, is the same amount of energy that 30,000 firecrackers would release. Ouch, hurts my ears to even think about it.

Although the problem is often caused by the battery being punctured — which can occur if a battery is impacted during processing or handling — these batteries can even over-heat while just sitting. The latter is especially true when these batteries are stored in stacked numbers.

Fortunately, a shorted battery fire can be managed relatively quickly if proper procedures are taken and it is easy to get to. However, the problem is much bigger if the battery is surrounded by other flammable items, as is often the case in recycling environments and storage areas, where paper, wood or other batteries might be nearby.

A reason it is a big concern in the recycling business is a fire at a facility can have negative effects on the people in the area, the customers, and what needs to be reported by the media. And if equipment is damaged with production lost for days, the cost of new machinery and disrupted service can be very damaging to the business. It’s even worse if a building is lost.

The use of such batteries is somewhat of a two-edged sword. While people enjoy the longer life of such batteries or how they will hold their charge much longer — I have one in my cordless drills which I appreciate — the hazards involved with them are detracting from them. But even with these hazards, their use will continue to grow.

At a recent conference, a spokesperson stated that between 2015 and 2020, manufacturers were expecting to triple the output of lithium-ion batteries worldwide. After that, this growth is expected to accelerate even more.

“The amount you see out there now is nothing compared to what we’ll be seeing in the future,” the spokesperson said.

Add to it the expected tremendous growth of the new 5G wireless technology, and it will create faster speeds and more device connectivity.

Please understand the information in this column about these batteries was not meant to scare anyone, but only make you more aware of the challenges of these batteries. Next week, I will address some of the things being done to reduce or even eliminate some of the hazards and problems.

Till next week, do have a great one and be careful driving, our kids are back in school,

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Ollie is a local citizen concerned with the environment and helping others. A retired Air Force fighter and instructor pilot, he is a graduate of Leadership San Marcos and received his degrees at Texas State University where he worked on staff before totally retiring. For questions or comments, he invites you to call him at 512-353-7432.or email omaier@txstate.edu.

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