Dealing With Lithium-ion Battery Fires on the Frontlines

The scope, consequences, and solutions of dealing with lithium-ion battery fires in recycling facilities, as presented at WasteExpo.

Alan Hitchcox

May 29, 2024

6 Min Read

Ryan Fogelman of Fire Rover Inc., opened the session by describing the scope fires at recycling facilities by summarizing results of a multi-year study showing 378 unique incidents occurring in North America a multi-year study showing 378 unique incidents over roughly the last eight years. Making reasonable assumptions, he extrapolated reported results to indicate that more than 2,400 facility fires occurred have occurred in the past 12 months, resulting in 65 reported injuries, two deaths.

Mr. Fogelman then summarized the makeup of these fires, which is summarized in Figure 1. General waste, paper, and plastics made up almost half of the reported fire incidents, with scrap metal recycling coming at a third for reported fires annually. However, although E-scrap accounts for only a small number of incidents, incidents involving these materials have show dramatic increases in the last two years — a 23% change above average of the previous year and a 56% increase from 2022 to 2023.

He then offered an effective solution to this growing problem as Fire Rover, a specialized method of effectively dealing with lithium-ion battery (LIB) fires at waste facilities. Mr. Fogelman described Fire Rover as, “A patented, prepackaged system of components capable of detection, notification, and suppression of a fire hazard. The systems use optical flame detectors and thermal imaging for detection and water or other suppression agent (such as foam) delivered by one or more monitors.”

Mr. Fogelman continued by explaining that detection and notification data are routed to a central station via a fire alarm control panel. Trained personnel located at a central station perform the suppression system. Benefits of the system include:

• reducing or eliminating false activations,

• appropriate responses to specific hazards,

• ideally suited to large spaces and outdoor applications,

• maintaining safety of fire personnel,

• less cleanup required, and

• environmental responsibility by using non-toxic (fluorine-free) suppression agents and less water than other systems.

He supported his conclusions with findings from an FM Global research report, which stated that smart monitors have demonstrated the ability to reduce the amount of water necessary for both cartooned and uncartoned unexpanded plastic fire sources by up to 88%. Large-scale tests demonstrate that smart sprinklers can reduce the water demand by more than 50% for both low-pile and high bay rack storage, and automated water cannons showed an even greater reduction of 92% for low-pile storage.

Implementing a Fire Action Plan

The next segment of the session was presented by David DeVito, General Manager of Recycling Operations at ReWaste Services, who pointed out the importance of establishing a fire action plan and offered many useful suggestions.

Mr. DeVito began by describing a fire brigade team, an organized group of employees who are knowledgeable, trained and skilled in at least basic fire fighting operations. An essential function of this team is to establish a fire action plan, which includes:

An emergency contact list — Police and fire should have more than one contact number in case the primary contact is unreachable. Local employees should be on call for quick response in gathering accurate and timely information. Response time is the difference between control and chaos.

Contingency planning — Periodic walkthroughs with the local fire chief should be scheduled to assess hazards and important equipment and structures.

• Site plans should have hydrants and other water sources clearly marked.

• Site and fire personnel should understand piles and the materials making them up.

• Foam agents and equipment should be on site and ready for immediate deployment.

• A great working relationship with local fire department ensures confidence that your team is competent in the handling of the situation.

Employee Training — All site personnel should be trained in basic fire fighting techniques and prevention. Other important training areas include:

• fire characteristic and stockpile monitoring,

• stockpile management and separation of burning materials, and

• enlisting certified fire fighters in the training of these employees promotes the important aspect of their involvement.

Pile Separation And Accessibility — Techniques should address:

• keeping lanes between piles,

• providing multiple attack points,

• providing open workable spaces,

• equipment should be parked away from piles, and

• combustible tanks must be clearly marked and kept away from piles.

Health, Safety, and Environment — Policies should include:

• establishing a command center,

• ensuring that air monitoring equipment is worn by all those in an affected area,

• attacking piles from an upwind position if possible,

• radios should be used for communication, especially when visibility is compromised,

• areas can become a flooded and impassable, which can limit access, and

• damming up drainage areas can control water and sediment runoff.

Health and Safety Hazards of Lithium-ion batteries

Next, George R. Thompson, Ph. D., of Chemical Compliance Systems Inc, explored the toxicity of substances encountered at waste facility sites —especially substances contained in lithium-ion batteries.

He explained that conventional fires require three conditions for combustion: oxygen, fuel, and an ignition source. What makes lithium-ion batteries so dangerous is that the batteries contain all three of these conditions. Oxygen can be produced from internal decomposition. The batteries also contain the fuel to maintain a fire. Lithium-ion batteries also can self ignite. So under certain conditions, lithium-ion batteries can start and propagate dangerous fires that cannot be extinguished using conventional methods. Figure 2 summarizes the hazardous substances that can result from lithium-ion battery fires.

LIBs involve exothermic “thermal runaway” and show a history of spontaneous re-ignition. The LIB becomes overheated, caused by physical damage, overcharging, or exposure to high temperature. A chain reaction can then occur: cells release flammable, explosive, or toxic gases, and ignition migrates from cell to cell.

LIB Fire suppression requires special extinguishing media to interrupt the chain reaction reduce toxic off-gassing, encapsulate corrosive electrolytes, and absorb thermal energy to halt thermal runaway propagation.

Dealing with Difficult Waste Streams

Bob Shallenberger, of Interco, a Metaltronics recycler, closed out the session by describing how Interco, a large-volume global metals and electronics trading company, focuses on three main commodities:
• laptop computers, tablets, cell phones, and other e-scrap,

• nonferrous metals, and

• lithium batteries, which are processed in Interco’s Critical Mineral Recovery plant, the largest lithium-ion battery recycling facility in the Western Hemisphere.

The plant encompasses 225,000 sq-ft of space on  more than32 acres. It can process more than 5,000 tons/month. Mr. Shallenberger said Interco’s Critical Mineral Recovery plant uses the world’s most advanced fire prevention, detection, and suppression system, which is described in Figure 3.

Figure 1. Although fires from e-scrap are still relatively few, their occurrences are increasing dramatically, as shown here.

Figure 2. Fires from lithium-ion batteries can be extremely dangerous, as evidenced by the wide variety of toxins they can emit.

Figure 3. Interco’s Critical Mineral Recovery plant is the largest LIB recycling facility in the western hemisphere. Not surprisingly, then, it contains the most advanced fire prevention, detection, and suppression system in the world.

About the Author(s)

Alan Hitchcox

Alan Hitchcox is a contributing writer for Waste360. He spent almost 40 years as a technical editor and writer for five publications.

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