If you look at the increase in lithium-ion batteries in our waste stream, it is the perfect storm for fire incidents. According to Cameron Perks, a consultant for Industrial Minerals, "forecast demand for lithium-ion batteries is expected to increase up to seven-fold by 2024." How this increase correlates to waste and recycling facilities fires is something that we honestly do not know, but what we do know is that at the very minimum there is an anecdotal effect."
First, we must ask why do lithium-ion batteries have the potential to cause fires? According to Paul Shearing, a chemical engineer at the University College London, "Batteries can blow up or melt when internal electrical components short-circuit, when mechanical problems crop up after a fall or an accident, or when they are installed incorrectly."
Imagine our existing waste and recycling lifecycle, from trash to final separation. There are an infinite number of danger points where damage can occur to a tiny lithium-ion battery, increasing the risk of a mini-explosion.
Why don't we just recycle lithium-ion batteries? In practicality, they are so small that they can sneak into a ton of places where they do not belong. The chances are high that the batteries are going to be damaged when being exposed to the "rough and tumble" environment of waste and recycling facilities. When these mini-explosions occur out of sight or after hours, they can cause significant damage.
The proliferation of lithium-ion batteries is only getting greater. Apple is going to add an estimated three billion mini lithium-ion batteries to the market alone with their new AirPod wireless headphones over the next 10 years. German supplier Robert Bosch GmbH and Japanese battery partner GS Yuasa Corp. aim to sell a lithium ion battery by 2020 that slashes production costs in half and delivers twice the energy density of today's batteries. The less expensive and more powerful they get, the more issues the waste and recycling industry will face, as the number of lithium-ion batteries increases.
Mitigate and Avoid Risk of Fire
In Stephen Watkins article, "Preventing the Five Major Causes of Industrial Fires and Explosions" (mentioned above), he suggests the steps that manufacturing and industrial organizations should embark upon to mitigate and avoiding the risk of fire. This includes: (1) Conduct a hazard analysis; (2) Establish fire prevention and emergency procedures; (3) Provide fire safety training; (4) Implement a regular housekeeping routine; (5) Inspect and maintain your equipment and systems.
I suggest that we add one more step to mitigating and avoiding fire risks. Add a level of proven thermal technology, including proactive detection and manual remote suppression to the safety & operations department's tool belt in order to drastically reduce the risk of a fire incident occurring at waste and recycling facilities.
What happens when a fire occurs at your operation? If it is a fire incident that is caught and contained, we all breathe a collective sigh of relief. "Pats on the back" are passed out for having the safety and procedural processes in place to successfully prevent a fire event from becoming a major incident. In simple terms, the safety and operations teams did their job, and processes and training worked.
Alternatively, what happens if a fire occurs at your operation and the fire gets out of control and causes significant damage? The "Active" protection layer typically consists of water sprinklers that are automatically set off when radiant heat passes 180 degrees—more often than not—contain the fire, protecting the lives of your employees and most of the building structure. However, in reality, your operations are offline. The cleanup process is sprung into action to re-start the revenue generating operations of your business with the goal of having the shortest amount of downtime. The subsequent investigation begins as the team starts to search for answers for what went wrong. The backroom discussions and finger-pointing begin, typically concluding that a combination the Operations and EH&S Departments of the organization need to develop processes and training to avoid another incident in the future like the one that occurred.
The inherent risk of fire in our waste and recycling industry operations is not secret. As an industry, for us to begin to solve the problem we are facing, we only need to borrow an approach used by the chemical industry that looks to the "layers of protection" to ensure the highest level of safety.
From an article by Joy LePree published on Chemical Engineering Online, figure 1 below shows these layers of protection. The lowest two layers show the areas of prevention provided by the control system and operator intervention. The next two layers demonstrate where technology kicks in to prevent significant disaster from occurring.