Almost all components in a battery can be recovered through recycling. On the other hand, thrown away, a used battery can explode, cause fire or pollute the environment. Elena Gaspar, president of the National Battery Recycling System Association (SNRB) explains how to capitalize a battery after it is no longer in use, while avoiding the accidents and reducing the carbon footprint.
1. How dangerous are the batteries if we throw them straight in the bin?
Not all the batteries catch fire, but they are dangerous in many ways. For example, if we throw normal remote-control batteries in the trash, when they arrive at the garbage collector, they leave with all the household garbage. There are some filters at the sanitation companies that separate the garbage from the recyclables. The problem is that the batteries are small enough to fit through the smallest filters.
So automatically batteries thrown in the garbage can end up in the ground and from there, in the ground water and so on.
They contain some substances that recovered are precious, unrecovered, are harmful, because in a battery you have nickel, cadmium, mercury. All these substances, passing through the water cycle in nature, end up on your plate, one way or another. If you don’t want to eat them, ideally you shouldn’t throw the batteries in the bin.
This is one kind of the danger. The other one is the lithium-ion batteries – laptop batteries or external chargers. Such a battery thrown in the bin can explode, either from heat or from shaking. It can also explode in the sanitation truck, or cause a fire, etc. The problem we have is that the people are not aware about this danger.
2. Among the battery types, are any of them more dangerous than others? From the perspective of starting fire …
Alkaline batteries, the classic batteries we use in remote controls for example, are not dangerous in this respect. I mean, they don’t light up easily, although it’s still good not to get them to the stage where they light up. But batteries containing lithium, primary lithium, such as those of laptop, or electric vehicle batteries, they are very dangerous and are highly flammable. Besides being flammable, if you have more than 30% lithium in a battery mix, they can explode. And it’s not a nice explosion!
3. What would be the safeguard measures for the batteries in use?
Sure, we are talking about the accidents, because nobody expects these batteries not to be safe. They are designed with safety measures; electric car manufacturers take all the required safety measures. Such accidents don’t happen often, but there is a lot of publicity around them, because of the impact they have.
The moment you smell something, see a wisp of smoke, you need to leave that battery in a safe area, where you know it can burn without setting something else on fire and walk away, as soon as possible! Under no circumstances put any foam or anything else. If you have sand, that’s great, the point is that you have to cut the oxygen immediately
It’s good to know that even after it has blown up, a lithium battery can still spring surprises, because the lithium batteries are never 100% discharged. It’s likely to explode again.
4. What can be recovered from a battery through recycling?
In the case of common batteries, it is possible to recover the metal that surrounds the battery, the substances inside (nickel, cadmium, etc.) and what is called black mass. More than 70% of the composition of a common battery is a black mass that is made up of carbon. The black mass is used either for producing asphalt mixes, plastic products or even other batteries. So somehow it is almost entirely recovered.
If we speak about the batteries that contain rare materials, such as lithium, the approach is wider. Lithium, as well as being ‘playful’, is also rare. We don’t have enough lithium deposits worldwide. When we talk about the rare materials, which are mainly mined outside the EU, it automatically pollutes.
Or, when you manage to recover it, you protect the environment. Unfortunately, in the countries where the deposits are located, there are no environmental regulations that exist in the European Union. And then recycling saves a huge amount of carbon footprint.
Somehow, the mankind should go this way. With emerging energy storage technologies, we are moving towards this globally limited matter. And then we have the option that the EU proposed in January, that other technologies besides lithium should be discovered by 2030. The other option is what is called second life and concerns the elements in electric car batteries. Electric car batteries are viable until they allow charging until 70%. At that point they can be used for renewable energy storage. But even for this purpose the technology needs to be developed, in order to avoid possible explosions. So, we need to develop the technology to conserve this limited raw material and reduce the carbon footprint caused by its mining.