Essential information for end of life vehicle dismantling, depollution and recycling

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Preventing Scrapyard Fires: Essential Information for Authorised Treatment Facilities

Mark Jones, the founder of ELV Training, a company offering vehicle depollution and dismantling training, provides his opinion about the alarming surge in scrapyard fires, primarily attributed to lithium-ion battery cells. The improper disposal of these batteries poses a significant risk at treatment sites, prompting the waste and recycling sector to turn to thermal imaging technology for proactive fire prevention. Despite the initial cost, businesses realise the long-term benefits of investing in this technology to safeguard their operations and personnel. In this article, Mark discusses the unstable nature of lithium-ion batteries, emphasising the potential devastation they can cause and urging a more proactive approach to fire risk management within the industry.

 

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Mark Jones

The Exponential Increase in Scrapyard Fires

So why are we seeing a spectacular jump in the number of fires at treatment facilities? First, we have to state that scrap yard and waste facility fires are not a new phenomenon. The industry has been plagued with these events for decades. However, it’s 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The improper and careless disposal of worn-out, outdated or defective devices and batteries is the main reason why so many end up in the wrong waste streams and eventually end up at treatment sites. If these facilities fail to locate them and separate them from incoming stock effectively, they can potentially cause a serious workplace event, putting lives and businesses at risk. What is more worrying is the apparent inability to prevent these battery fires from 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 be the case. We advise you to check by visiting your local authority’s website.” So, with budget cuts being made across local authorities, it is not feasible 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 has been left with no alternative but to manage this increasing problem at their facilities, not at source and without Government support – and in doing so, 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 managing fire risk at scrapyards and other facilities was dictated by two factors: the fire risk assessment and available business capital. Previously, if a business was only advised or recommended to do something but was not legally required to do it, it’s likely that other business priorities would win out on capital investment. However, thinking within the industry is changing gradually. Forced with having to manage the risk of Lithium-ion battery fires in-house, the overriding thought nowadays is to invest in thermal imaging technology, proactively protecting both business and people.

The use of thermal imaging is not necessarily a new technology, but it is costly. The applications and 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 stockpiles, 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 widespread adoption. However, as with all new electronic technology, it is initially very expensive, but over time, prices tend to fall considerably. 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 is increasing within recycling and waste management settings, specifically to mitigate the risks presented by incoming Electric vehicles (EV). Handheld devices are being used immediately upon arrival at treatment sites to ascertain the condition of EV batteries. Thermal imaging may not necessarily be able to locate hidden batteries in incoming waste and ELVs, but it can be used to identify potentially defective batteries and components giving off unusual heat signatures so that 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 damage sustained.

Preventing Scrapyard Fires: Essential Information for Authorised Treatment Facilities p four

Let’s face reality – Scrapyards and treatment facilities sites are large, congested places, with many unmanned 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 unmanned 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.

Preventing Scrapyard Fires: Essential Information for Authorised Treatment Facilities p six

Why are Lithium-Ion Batteries so Unstable?

Unlike other more stable battery technologies, Li-ion batteries 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 oxidise the lithium components, causing a volatile heat reaction. Overheating, overcharging and shock from dropping or crushing introduce 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 reaction, generating even more heat, creating a domino effect that increases 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.

Conclusion

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 firefighting 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!

Visit www.elvtraining.com

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Owain Griffiths

Owain Griffiths

Head of Circular Economy at Volvo Cars

Owain joined Volvo Cars in June 2021 to lead Circular Economy in the Global Sustainability Team. The company has committed to being a circular business by 2040 and has financial, recycled content and CO2 based targets for 2025, all of which Owain is working across the company to make happen. Owain previously worked for circular economy consultancy Oakdene Hollins where he advised businesses on evidence led circular economy implementation. 

Turning into a circular business and the importance of vehicle reuse and recycling.

The presentation will cover the work Volvo Cars is doing to achieve 2025 but mainly focus on the transformational work towards 2040 and the business and value chain changes being considered. Attention will be paid to the way vehicles are being dealt with at the end of life and the complexities of closing material and component loops. Opportunities and challenges which Volvo Cars is facing will be presented including engagement with 3rd parties and increasing pressure from stakeholders.

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e2e Total Loss Vehicle Management [e2e] is the UK’s only salvage and automotive recycling network with nationwide, environmentally compliant sites delivering performance resilience and service reliability to the insurance and fleet markets.  The network’s online salvage auction www.salvagemarket.co.uk drives strong salvage resale values and faster sales.  e2e’s salvage clients have access to the network’s stocks of over 5 million quality graded, warranty assured reclaimed parts. 

The power of the network model means e2e has the ability to influence industry standards and is committed to continually raising the bar whilst redefining the role and perceived value of the salvage operator.  Network members adhere to robust service level agreements, against which they are audited, in order to ensure performance consistency and a market leading customer experience.  

The salvage and recycling operating environment is evolving rapidly, and e2e is anticipating, listening and responding to changing market needs.  Regulatory compliance, ESG, reclaimed parts, customer experience, EVs, new vehicle technologies, data and reputation risk are just some of many considerations linked to the procurement of salvage services.  e2e will drive further added value to clients and members through the adoption and application of emerging technologies, continuing to differentiate its proposition and position salvage services as a professional partnership. 

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