Dealing with lithium-ion batteries is never an easy thing. Much about the safety of these devices depends on the quality of the battery and the type of product it’s in. Lithium-ion batteries are one of the most common batteries on the market and can be found powering a wide variety of consumer products since they provide steady energy in a small package. However, they’re subject to overheating – a problem that resulted not only in the high-profile recall, and now halted production, of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone, but in a number of fires and explosions in other consumer products.
Even e-scrap managers, who are industry experts when it comes to this type of material, can have a hard time preventing thermal events. These volatile devices can be a threat not only resting in the device but during disassembly procedures as well.
In a recent webinar hosted by the U.S. EPA, e-scrap facility operators joined representatives from industry groups and a regulatory agency to talk about the ongoing lithium-ion battery challenges that electronic recyclers are facing and provide advice on how other facilities can prevent any accidents caused by the batteries. HOBI’s president, Craig Boswell was joined on the webinar by Neil Peters-Michaud of Cascade Asset Management, Kevin Leary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, George Kerchner of the Rechargeable Battery Association and Chris Coady of The Recycling Partners. Collectively, they covered dismantling techniques, regulatory compliance and the difficulties of dealing with a constantly changing product stream where no two battery removal methods are the same.
Most e-scrap managers know that smartphones and all other mobile devices that contain lithium-ion batteries have to have the battery removed before the unit can be sent to the shredder stream. However, safe and proper disassembly requires time and when lithium-ion batteries are concerned, a great deal of patience.
For years, consumer electronics were made with consumer-replaceable lithium-ion batteries as the norm, Boswell comments. But now, producers have migrated “almost 100 percent away from consumer-replaceable batteries,” he noted. It seems that OEMs are ditching designs that keep battery removal in mind and in fact, some might even say that manufactures have designed devices against it.
These days, lithium-ion batteries are held in place through the use of adhesives – meaning that the batteries are literally glued into the device. This makes removal of the battery a difficult process.
Peters-Michaud gives an example of the iPhone 6. These specific smartphones are manufactured with a lithium-ion polymer battery, which is a type of battery that only has a thin film exterior protecting the device. The virtually unprotected device is then glued into the iPhone case. What concerns scrap-managers the most about this type of design is that the lithium-ion polymer can easily be punctured and could potentially cause a thermal reaction. However, with the adhesive holding the battery in place, a considerable amount of force will need to be used in order to pry the battery out of the phone but by doing so, workers risk damaging the volatile battery.
Some facilities have found a way that this could be avoided. In the webinar, Peters-Michaud gave a rundown of how workers at his company are able to avoid any accidental damage to the lithium-ion batteries. Using a machine called a “hot table” that’s located in the disassembly area, the device is placed on a 95 degree table where the adhesive in the device is able to melt down and the battery can be attempted to be removed without too much significant force. The process takes about four minutes in total. He comments that Cascade’s hot table can handle up to eight phones at once, and is also used for melting down adhesives in tablet devices.
Using a small plastic prying tool supplied by iFixit, workers the separate the glue from the battery and once removed, tape is applied to the battery to prevent any contact with other materials that could cause a reaction. Anyone removing lithium-ion batteries should never attempt to remove the batteries with any metal tools as these could spark a reaction from the battery and lead to dangerous situations. Finally, the batteries are grouped together, packed, and shipped to a battery processor for recycling.
However, while Cascade seems to have found a method to safely remove lithium-ion batteries, HOBI’s Boswell comments that disassembly processes can change depending on the device, and any subtle difference in product design can make a substantial difference in how scrap-managers have to approach removal processes.
“The unique nature of each product requires unique procedures to properly remove the battery, ad safely remove the battery to avoid a thermal event,” he said. In order to address this issue, HOBI modifies its removal procedures as new products enter the waste steam. But with new products constantly entering the market, this is an omnipresent issue for the electronic recycling industry.
While there are steps and precautions that can be taken to prevent thermal activity from these devices, fires can still occur. Cascade tries to minimize this risk by keeping a low volume of batteries accumulating in any one location at a given point in time. The company also tries to keep hard-case and soft, polymer-case lithium-ion batteries separate from one another, which will minimize the risk of hard batteries potentially puncturing the softer variety ones.
Boswell also advises that HOBI takes extra precaution by minimizing the presence of flammable materials on the workbench. “At more risk to your facility is that quick event turning into a fire event,” Boswell said. “That typically happens not because the battery burns out because there were papers or cardboard or other [flammable] things in the general vicinity where the work was being done. Ad you can create a secondary fire from the actual battery event.”
In HOBI and Cascade’s case, tongs are used to handle batteries that are reacting. When a reaction begins, lithium-ion batteries burn extremely hot, therefore proper tools are needed to safely handle the device. The battery is then thrust into a container of sand, that is kept nearby and taken outside the building. These actions will help contain the thermal event and prevent the fire from spreading, causing a secondary fire, or damaging or harming the facilities and workers.
Representatives of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), The Rechargeable Battery Association, and The Recycling Partnership also joined the webinar to articulate important points that can help e-scrap stakeholders manage the lithium-ion battery stream more safely and efficiently.
Kevin Leary of DOT, described the regulations required to ship end-of-life lithium-ion batteries. The primary intent is to protect them from short circuits and damage, especially with lithium-ion polymer batteries. To ensure this, there are various specific requirements for damaged, defective or recalled batteries, such as separating them from other batteries, labeling them, and more. “Once it’s damaged, it has a higher than normal likelihood of causing a thermal event or going into thermal runaway,” Leary said. He noted DOT runs a hotline for information on hazardous material regulations and transportation, including information on LI battery handling.
George Kerchner of The Rechargeable Battery Association addressed the associations concern to the growing interest in refurbishing and reusing lithium-ion batteries. Due to the complexities of battery chemistry and the wide variety of battery times, the association stated, “Our position is that the entity that’s doing the reconditioning of cells or batteries, it should be the original manufacturer of the cells of batteries, or the entity should have direct knowledge of the cell degradation characteristics and safety systems of the battery, and is authorized to recondition the cells or batteries by the original manufacturer.”
The last speaker of the webinar, Chris Coady of The Recycling Partnership, provided advice on improving curbside recycling systems nationwide as there is a crossover between the materials recovery facility operations and e-scrap operators with the lithium-ion battery issue.
Craig Boswell, president of HOB International, Inc., is passionate about this topic and has spoken and written about this issue multiple times. In February, Boswell wrote an article that featured in ISRI’ e-Scrap Beat that addressed potential solutions to enhancing repairability of lithium-ion batteries in mobile devices and proposed that to correct these issues, the industry needs to implement a set of standards that will administer design changes to devices, which will ensure batteries aren’t being damaged during the disassembly process. If not, mounting mechanisms such as adhesives become a disruptor in the recycling stream. Batteries must be removed from devices for the devices to be further processed for recycling purposes or during repair operations. He believes that a potential solution could lie in the creation of a mechanism that will either determine the discharge of lithium-ion batteries or discharge the battery at a quick but safe rate. This type of technology would help decrease the chance of a possible battery fire and would help streamline the process of removing lithium-ion batteries while maintaining efficient production output for both OEMs and processors.