When it comes to power sources, there’s much to be said for using Lithium Batteries. They’re light in weight and store vast amounts of energy to power our mobile phones, laptops, digital cameras and fitness trackers. They keep us connected and productive. But you need to take great care when disposing of any items containing lithium batteries, and for good reason.
Imagine a fitness tracker running out of battery half way through the day. Those 12,000 steps you worked hard to achieve show as just 6,000. Disaster – that’s half your physical effort going unrecorded.
More seriously, lithium-ion batteries are used everywhere, and their ubiquity makes it easy to forget that they are the result of some very clever technology. There’s a great deal gong on underneath that smart casing of your mobile phone or laptop. In simple terms: inside every lithium-ion batteries are cathodes, anodes and lithium. All held in a liquid carrying the essential charge. This allows the battery to function properly over a longer period of time, especially when compared to a traditional alkaline battery.
Also inside is a porous membrane of polypropylene which keeps the electrodes from touching. This delicate balance works well in everyday use. However, if the battery is crushed, its elements will react with the moisture and could short-circuit, causing a fire.
Lithium Batteries use rising fast
With a predicted increase in usage of lithium-ion batteries (Apple’s AirPod wireless headphones will introduce an estimated three billion more mini lithium-ion batteries to the market over the next decade), and the reduced cost of production, there are going to be billions more needing safe disposal.
It helps that the industry has finally discovered how to recycle lithium-ion batteries, which is positive news for the growing electric car market where batteries are big.
Less good news is that many small lithium batteries in our high-tech gadgets are still going to landfill because they’re either difficult to extract, or people simply forget to take them out.
And therein lays a growing problem. Waste is crushed as it goes into our waste vehicles, and there is an increasing number of fires each year directly related to lithium batteries. Consider the potential dangers of a fire in a waste collection vehicle in a town centre? This is a situation could be life threatening unless we all continue to remain vigilant.
A Growing Problem
It’s a growing problem for all waste management companies. While the European Union has already introduced rules that make car manufactures responsible for battery recycling, putting simple warnings on small batteries isn’t happening fast enough.
Some waste management companies are working with others within the industry to encourage manufactures to put hazard warnings on batteries and to promote recycling.
Lithium batteries have been at the centre of global news headlines over the last few years.
In 2013, Boeing’s fleet of 787 Dreamliners was grounded by regulations after batteries smouldered during a flight over Japan. Others caught fire on a different aircraft parked at a US airport. In 2016, Samsung’s Galaxy smart phones were banned from aeroplanes after it was discovered that the headset’s batteries could cause phones to smoulder and burn.
E-Cigarettes are powered by Lithium batteries. Poor design, use of low-quality materials, manufacturing flaws and improper use or handling (including not using the correct charger), can all contribute to a condition known as ‘thermal Runaway’, where the battery temperature can increase, causing a battery fire or explosion. Crushing an e-cigarette in a waste vehicle could cause a serious fire.
Lithium Battery Recycling
Lithium is not included in the EU’s list of critical raw materials because, compared with other metals, the supply risk and economic importance are relatively low. However, the UK Government has classified it as a strategically important metal because of the projected growth in demand for vehicle batteries.
Lithium-ion batteries can be recycled in a specialised room temperature, oxygen-free, mechanical process which separates the battery components into cobalt and lithium salt concentrate, stainless steel and copper, aluminium and plastic. All of these materials can be returned to the market to be reused in new products.
To recycle batteries containing lithium metal, ferrous and non-ferrous metals are recovered using alkaline solution, and the lithium is converted to lithium carbonate, which can be used again in batteries.