Environmental Concerns Of Recycling Lithium Batteries

All batteries should be recycled. Lithium batteries are no exception. Even when discharged, the batteries contain some form of lithium, organic solvents, and other chemicals most of which are toxic. When not fully discharged, the batteries have the potential to start fires. Aside from the known environmental concerns of today, it is not unlikely that in the future new environmental requirements or concerns may evolve from the disposal of batteries. In one eastern block country there is a huge problem with lead acid batteries contaminating ground water. One middle eastern country had a landfill fire that burned out of control for many days due to lithium batteries. In North America several lithium-recycling facilities have been shut down for environmental reasons. The only sure solution is appropriate recycling.

Everything in the battery when new is still contained in it when completely discharged. Incineration, pyrometallurgical and hydrolysis methods eliminate reactivity but in many situations ultimately generate a hazardous waste. This may be wastewater, sludge, bag house waste, or ash.

Prior to the processing of any lithium battery for recycling, the battery's material safety data sheet should be reviewed, and, if necessary, a complete analysis should be performed to determine the waste products. Components and chemicals are unique to each manufacturer and not each type of lithium battery. Many are similar but none are identical. Compounds that can cause serious concern if overlooked include chrome, arsenic, fluorine, mercury, organic solvents, asbestos, lithium, and others. At the end of this chapter are two typical battery analyses performed by Toxco Inc., exemplifying the in-depth planning which must occur prior to receiving batteries for recycling. A similar analysis of the anticipated reactions has been developed for each lithium battery type.

issions from inga 180 ib ium primary ery arc similar hose from a j IIII fire or ..,~ineration of the battery.

So, if one is trying to select a lithium battery recycling facility, what does he look for to make sure the facility is in compliance with environmental requirements? It should have: the required approvals/permits from the designated authority; air discharge permits (if there is any form of air emission), and water discharge permits (if there is any effluent being released). If a recycler states that a facility permit is not necessary he should be able to provide proof of such, in writing, from the competent environmental authority. If one plans on processing larger volumes or extremely hazardous systems the best method of evaluation is a site visit to review the facility and environmental permits.

A typical visual audit should include:

1) A review of environmental approvals and permits.

2) An inspection of the general cleanliness and housekeeping of the facility.

3) A review of the receiving log and hazardous waste manifest log (if applicable),

4) A review of personnel training and qualifications.

5) A review of emergency accident/incident plans.

6) A review of the background and facility history.

7) A review of the corporate structure.


Sorting, packaging, storage, and transporting of lithium batteries is discussed in detail since the success of all battery waste management facilities can be quickly affected by these practices. These processes seem trivial to the actual recycling methodologies but they are not. The liabilities, safety concerns, and physical damage can be very great if certain steps are not strictly adhered to. The following are the authors opinions and interpretations. Governmental requirements should be investigated for the packaging and transportation in your area for your specific needs.

There is no automatic mechanism that can sort the various types of lithium batteries. There are expensive automated systems that can sort lithium from nickel, alkaline, etc. As a result, lithium types must be either sorted by the user or at the processing facility. This is usually a very tedious and time-consuming process. This process is necessary since some lithium systems can and will contaminate processes. Several types and sizes of lithium batteries and other also have the potential to react violently. If not properly sorted, facilities, personnel, and equipment can be placed at high risk. Improper sorting can be extremely costly at a minimum.

Packaging is probably the most overlooked cause of fire or incident. The batteries must be packaged according to strict requirements. The cells or terminals must be insulated with a nonconductive material to prevent short-circuiting against each other or against the sides of metal packaging. The batteries are then placed into an approved metal drum, wooden box, fiberboard box or other approved packaging group II container. The batteries must also be suitably cushioned to reduce vibration and shock during transport. The cushioning recommended is absorbent vermiculite. The inside of the packaging should be lined with a heavy plastic/polypropylene liner. The outside of the package should be labeled with a "Miscellaneous" Class 9 label. Leaking or vented cells must be packaged separately to prevent spills.

The transport of lithium batteries varies from country to country. In most countries the batteries must be shipped as a hazardous waste UN3091. Only transport companies approved and permitted are allowed to transport hazardous waste and the waste must be labeled and manifested as hazardous waste. There are exceptions depending on the type of battery and the quantity of lithium contained within the battery. In the US several types of common household have been classified as Universal Waste. The Universal Waste rule allows the batteries to be shipped via common carrier using a standard bill of lading. With the development of the lithium ion battery the transport rules are being modified or at least reviewed. The current argument is that lithium ion batteries do not have the same characteristics of reactivity as the lithium primaries of earlier years. Authors note: It is the belief of the authors that the secondary lithium batteries should have been named "light metal" vs. "lithium" rechargeable. They have been scrutinized regarding safety when in fact they do not exhibit the same violent properties of their primary lithium cousins. As the newer lithium rechargeable batteries are evaluated and worst case scenarios are reviewed this fact will be proven and incorporated into transport requirements (hopefully soon). Requirements for the transport between countries involves the import and export authorizations of the environmental agencies of the respective countries involved.

The storage requirements for lithium batteries are very similar to those of other batteries. They should be kept out of direct sunlight or high heat. They should be kept covered and clearly marked. In a recycling environment safeguards must be taken to reduce the risk of fire. All combustible material that is not essential should be removed from the area. Batteries should not be stored near explosives, flammable liquids or other non-compatible materials. The storage area should be made of metal or concrete

Class 9 Miscellaneous 1 lazard label

and all materials in the storage area such as insulation, roofing etc. should be reviewed and replaced with a non-flammable substitute. For many years the storage of lithium batteries was considered to be the same as for lithium metal. Sprinkler-type water fire suppression systems were not recommended. Through experience it is known that although there is lithium metal in many batteries, this does not cause the most fire damage. In most cases it is the combustible packaging or building materials that cause the majority of battery-related fire damage. For this reason it is recommended that the storage (and processing area) be controlled with sprinklers. Most batteries are small and vent quickly. They also are contained in metal outer battery cases. The reaction from water with a small amount of lithium is considered negligible compared to secondary fire damage. The water will eliminate secondary fires in storage and will act to cool the cases of other batteries within the immediate area. An example of the ideal storage area (used by Toxco Inc as well as many facets of the military) is seen below. This structure is made completely of poured concrete and has an earthen covered roof. For extremely large volumes of batteries another good idea is to store batteries in several such areas vs. storing in one large area. This prevents catastrophic incidents. The areas should also be away from processing equipment and located in a remote site away from personnel.

Poured concrete lithium battery storage area with earth covered roof.
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