How to Prevent Scrapyard Fires: Essential Information for Authorised Treatment Facilities
The Exponential Increase in Scrapyard Fires
So why are we seeing a spectacular jump in the number of fires at treatment facilities? Well, first, we have to state that scrap yard and waste facility fires are not a new phenomena. The industry has been plagued with these events for decades. However, its the recent increased frequency and ferocity of these fires which is particularly alarming. And this by in large, is down to Lithium-ion battery cells. Li-ion batteries play an important role in the quality of life in today's society due to their lightweightness, high energy density and their ability to be recharged many times. Consequently Li-ion batteries have become the dominant technology, powering everything from portable tools, laptops, mobile phones and vehicles.
The improper and careless disposal of worn-out, outdated or defective devices and batteries are the main reason why so many end up in the wrong waste streams, and eventually end up at treatment sites. And if these facilities fail to locate them and separate them from incoming stock effectively, they have the potential to cause a serious workplace event, putting lives and businesses at risk. What is more worrying, is the apparent inability to prevent these battery fires turning into huge infernos, causing mass destruction, putting emergency responders and workers at risk, as well as generating pollution within the localised environment.
The Careless Disposal of Batteries
As much as the media plays an important part in encouraging the public to dispose of electronic devices and batteries responsibly, the UK Government needs to lead the way on this. Here's a quote from the www.recycle-more.co.uk website:
"Battery waste may be accepted for collection as part of your local authority's household kerbside collection scheme; however, this may not always the case. We advise you to check by visiting your local authority's website."
So, with budgets cuts being made across local authorities, it is not feasibly for local authorities to provide battery Li-ion waste collection to help mitigate the risk of these contaminating other waste streams.
Managing the Aftermath of Scrapyard Fires is Unsustainable
The exponential increase in lithium-ion battery fires means we simply cannot keep mopping up the aftermath and accepting this is an inevitable and potent fire risk that cannot be entirely removed from recycling activities and sites. Business owners within the sector are experiencing year on year increases in insurance premiums, threatening the future viability of their operations. Worse still, as the sheer number of fires breaking out increases, so does the likelihood of someone getting killed or seriously injured. The Waste and Recycling sector have been left no alternative but to manage this increasing problem at their facilities, not at source and without Government support - and in doing ATFs and other waste facilities are increasingly turning to thermal imaging technology for help in identifying these rogue units.
The Solution: Thermal Cameras
Historically, the decision on how to effectively manage fire risk at scrapyards and other facilities has been dictated by two main factors: the fire risk assessment and available business capital. And previously, if a business was only advised or recommended to do something, but are not legally required to do it, its likely that other business priorities would win out on capital investment. But thinking within the industry has been changing gradually. Forced with having to manage the risk of Lithium-ion battery fires inhouse, the overriding thoughts nowadays, is to invest in thermal imaging technology, proactively protecting both business and people.
The use of thermal imaging is not necessarily new technology but it is costly. The applications and the benefits span a wide range of activities, trades and sectors, not just the recycling and waste industry. Thermal imaging cameras can identify heat signatures whether they be from a potential thief, trespasser, pedestrians near mobile machinery or from hot spots lurking within stock piles, defective machinery and batteries. But for many, the cost of such equipment has to date, prevented the technology from being considered as a viable solution for wide spread adoption. However, as with all new electronic technology, initially, it is very expensive, but over time, prices tend to fall considerably. And at this time, although not cheap by any means, the cost of investing in such technology is falling. The Industry is increasingly realising that investment in fire prevention equipment provides benefits that far outweigh the risk and expense of failing to invest.
The Growth of Thermal Imaging Applications
The use of portable thermal imaging tools are on the increase within recycling and waste management settings specifically to mitigate the risks presented by incoming Electric vehicles (EV). Handheld devices are being used immediately on arrival at treatment sites to ascertain the condition of EV batteries. Thermal imaging may not be able to necessary locate hidden batteries in incoming waste and ELVs, but they can be used to identify potentially defective batteries and components giving off unusual heat signatures, so they can be safely isolated. In addition, portable thermal imaging tools can be used to monitor the overall thermal management of batteries stored at a facility, especially those that are deemed high risk due to damaged sustained.
Let's face reality - Scrapyards and treatment facilities sites are large, congested places, with many not manned by personnel around the clock. Employers and employees alike, simply can't see everything that is going on, all of the time. And we certainly don't know what is going on deep within stockpiles where the potential always lurks for smouldering hot spots to go unnoticed, and develop into a serious fire. With a ready supply of oxygen and an endless source of combustible materials, small fires can quickly establish themselves, raising combustion temperature to over 700 degrees Celsius, and all the time, going unchallenged. Only when a fire finally breaches the top of a stockpile, producing visible smoke or flames would employees potentially have any clue there was a serious event unfolding. And even then, with the majority of operations not manned 24 hours, seven days a week, and premises predominately located well away from residential areas, it could be some time before a fire is noticed and emergency services are called to respond.
Why are Lithium-Ion Batteries so Unstable?
Unlike other more stable battery technologies, Li-ion are designed to be light and portable, making them prone to damage, and when they do become damaged or defective, if the conditions are right, they can produce a volatile reaction. The improper transportation, storage and recycling of these batteries, especially in end of life vehicles, waste and recycling streams, provides just the right conditions to produce this reaction - broken or cracked battery enclosures allow both moisture and oxygen to oxidize the lithium components, causing a volatile heat reaction. Overheating, overcharging and shock from dropping or crushing introduces heat, and with highly flammable electrolytes and battery cells tightly packed together, with little to no isolation between cells, this can have serious consequences. Ignition of the flammable electrolyte quickly sets off a chemical chain reactions generating even more heat, creating a domino effect that increase the temperature up to 700-800 ºC, making it very difficult to control the temperature of the burning battery cells. This is known as thermal runaway. The resulting chemical reaction can release combustible gasses that deform battery cells, ultimately compromising the outer casing of the battery further, whilst the smoke emitted from a Li-ion fire is combustible, toxic, as well as corrosive.
Let's never underestimate the potential devastation just one of these fires can possess - these can be life-threatening and business-ending events. I challenge business owners to consider a more proactive approach to fire risk. Think in terms of leveraging technology to help prevent a potential fire, not just considering the mandatory aspects (your facility's fire fighting and fire suppression capability). I am sure that any business owner who has been unfortunate enough to experience a serious workplace fire, would not hesitate in recommending the benefits of thermal imaging technology and would agree, that it is money well spent!