The rising risk of battery fires
Currently, batteries are the biggest fire risk to the waste and recycling sector.
Whether being processed through waste streams in children’s toys, mobile phones or general WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment), or powering machinery as part of efforts for more sustainable operations, batteries are everywhere. And where batteries are processed, held and recycled, the fire risks are high.
James Mountain, sales and marketing director, Fire Shield Systems, discusses the collection of risks presented by batteries for the waste and recycling sector, and shares how the dangers can best be mitigated to ensure site and employee safety.
What are the risks?
Batteries, in any shape, size or form, carry the primary risk of thermal runaway. Thermal runaway occurs when a malfunction in the battery cells (caused by damage, mechanical failure or overvoltage) starts to create excess heat. The energy that is released creates more heat, in turn, causing the temperature of the battery to rapidly increase.
If not controlled quickly, a battery in thermal runaway can self-propagate, producing its own oxygen to propel flames between cells. This can lead to large fires, toxic gas emissions and potentially violent explosions.
Thermal runaway creates fires that are particularly difficult to control and extinguish. Often, batteries in this state will have to be self-contained and left to burn out naturally over time – which causes the loss of any valuable assets, machinery or equipment nearby and prolonged operational downtime.
How are the risks rising?
As our consumption of electronics increases every day, waste and recycling sites are seeing a higher volume of batteries in waste streams. The risk is present everywhere – even some types of metals have electrical elements that need to be stripped out before they can be safely recycled.
As such, batteries in waste is a growing fire risk, but sufficient protection isn’t always in place. Over recent months, we’ve seen myriad waste and recycling fires attributed to batteries. For example, waste sites producing sustainable fuels, such as SRF (solid recovered fuel) or RDF(refuse derived fuel), screen waste streams for batteries before reaching shredding – but their screenings aren’t fool-proof. Batteries are unavoidably missed and then damaged by the shredder, initiating the early stages of thermal runaway. The battery is then processed with the highly combustible SRF and RDF. It’s the perfect recipe for a fire.
The same problem is seen in waste transfer stations. Here, unnoticed batteries can become crushed by heavy machinery, knocked by loading shovels or damaged by water, providing more opportunities for thermal runaway to occur.
What’s the solution?
From a manufacture standpoint, batteries aren’t going to be getting any safer in the near future, so the focus remains on mitigating the risks. Industry guidance is in place to give direction on this, including advice specifically for waste businesses. At this point, however, there are no legal requirements for waste and recycling businesses to manage their battery fire risks effectively.
The Environment Agency (EA) is continuing to drive the improvement of safety standards for waste and recycling businesses. It is encouraging sites to assess their individual risks and mitigate them through a fire prevention plan (FPP) to ensure their own safety and protection of equipment and the environment.
Prevention and suppression solutions
The ultimate goal in battery fire prevention is controlling and cooling any and all potential risks, preventing thermal runaway from occurring and intercepting the risk of damage to surrounding valuable assets.
Despite this, waste processing moves rapidly and involves lots of different processes at once, such as sorting, bailing, conveyors and shredders. Therefore, there are several different risks that need to be carefully addressed, and often, traditional fire detection systems may fall short.
Having worked with many businesses in the waste and recycling sector, heat detection systems have proved themselves to be the most effective in identifying and preventing battery fires. This includes systems such as infra-red heat detection, linear heat detection or thermal imaging, which work well alongside the waste processing stream. They identify risk quickly by detecting excess heat on the conveyor belts and signalling to temporarily stop the process until the risk is removed. This allows the risk to be suppressed with local applications, such as cannons or deluge systems, which cause less disruption and minimal damage to surrounding equipment.
What difference does it make?
Batteries fires are a real and growing threat during the day-to-day operations of essential waste businesses. Reducing that risk with effective fire protection:
• Ensures safety of employees
• Minimises downtime
• Protects against the loss of valuable assets.
This risk will only increase as our electrical consumption grows, and we dispose of devices and electrical equipment at an increasingly rapid rate.
For more information, or to book your free site risk assessment today, visit Fire Shield Systems or call 0800 975 5767.