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Lithium-Ion Batteries: The Power and the Peril

Lithium-ion batteries power our lives, but improper disposal creates fire hazards we must avoid through responsible recycling.

We are surrounded by lithium-ion batteries. The laptop at your desk, the tablet your kid uses, the brand-new e-bike your husband just bought and the smartphone in your hands … they all use lithium-ion batteries. And why not? Lithium-ion batteries are affordable, reusable and accessible. But that convenience comes at a cost.

Where Did Lithium-Ion Batteries Come From?Crushed Lithium Ion Battery

In the 1970s, the United States was facing an oil shortage. Stanley Whittingham, an English chemist who was working for Exxon at the time, wanted to create a new type of battery, one that could be recharged and could break the country away from dependence on fossil fuels. His first few experiments were failures with the batteries catching fire, so Exxon pulled the plug on his endeavors.

But that was not the end, as a couple of other scientists built upon his work. In the 1980s, John B. Goodenough, from Texas, and Akira Yoshino, in Japan, found ways to improve upon Whittingham’s ideas, and in 1990 the lithium-ion battery was born. This was such a landmark achievement that the three scientists won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019.

What is a Lithium-Ion Battery?

So, what is a lithium-ion battery? Simply put, it is a type of rechargeable battery that uses lithium ions as the key component for storing and releasing electrical energy. Unlike traditional disposable batteries, lithium-ion batteries can be recharged hundreds or thousands of times by passing an electrical current through them.

As consumers came to see the benefits of this new technology, the lithium-ion battery market saw an increase in production and purchases, becoming the dominant power source for electronics. With the launch of electric vehicles in 2008, the demand for lithium-ion batteries skyrocketed and continues growing. But, as the saying goes, with great power, there must also come great responsibility. That responsibility is shared between the manufacturers and consumers.

Handle With Caution

As a consumer, it is your responsibility to know the risks and handle products containing lithium-ion batteries safely. While lithium-ion batteries have become indispensable in our daily lives, if they are damaged, overheated or improperly handled, these batteries can potentially catch fire or explode.

A dangerous situation unfolds as an electric scooter catches fire in a living room after its battery explodes.The flammable electrolyte solution inside lithium-ion batteries can ignite if the battery short-circuits due to physical damage like puncturing the metal casing. Exposing the batteries to excessive heat can also trigger thermal runaway—an uncontrolled rise in temperature leading to catastrophic failure of the battery. Overcharging your cell phone poses a fire hazard as well, which is why you should never leave your phone charging once the battery is full. This can lead to severe fires that are difficult to extinguish, reaching temperatures of more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. And if there is a fire in your home, make sure you alert first responders to any potential hazards.

Manufacturers bear the responsibility of ensuring their batteries are up to standard. We’ve seen what happens when products with faulty batteries hit the market. Electric cars catching fire. Cell phones and vape pens exploding. While we, as consumers, have little power over the manufacturers, the government is growing aware of the dangers posed by improperly manufactured lithium-ion batteries. In May, H.R. 1797, the Setting Consumer Standards for Lithium-Ion Batteries Act, was introduced to Congress, in an effort to tighten the safety standards for rechargeable batteries.

This will help ensure that the products you purchase, such as e-bikes, scooters, vape devices and even your electric toothbrush will not pose hazards to you while you use them.

Recycle With Care – For Your Safety and Ours

But what happens when those batteries no longer hold a charge or when the electronic device powered by an internal lithium-ion battery stops functioning? What do you do with those batteries and devices?

The one thing you should absolutely never do is throw lithium-ion batteries or devices containing them into your regular trash. When your garbage is collected and compacted by the collection truck, a discarded lithium-ion battery or electronic device powered by one can catch fire, putting the sanitation workers in serious danger. The hazard escalates further once those batteries end up in the landfill. Everything at the landfill gets compacted and crushed by heavy vehicles – and a crushed lithium-ion battery will burst into flames.

The Polk County North Central Landfill has already experienced numerous battery fires caused by lithium-ion cells being crushed. Thankfully, those fires were extinguished before causing catastrophic damage, but the potential for a massive, uncontrollable blaze is always looming with each lithium-ion battery that gets improperly discarded into the regular waste stream.

So, how do you responsibly recycle your depleted batteries and electronics? There are a couple of options. Visit www.call2recycle.org to find businesses near you that will take your items. Here in Polk County, you can also take your items to the Household Hazardous Waste facility, located at 5 Environmental Loop S. in Winter Haven. They are open on Friday from 8 a.m. to noon, and on Saturday from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Lithium-ion batteries have revolutionized technology and have become a vital part of our lives. But while they have come a long way from Whittingham’s original experiments, the danger of the batteries catching fire still exists. Handle your electronic devices with caution. Recycle them with care. For your safety and ours.

Sources: Lithium Ion Battery – History – Advancing Materials (thermofisher.com)

 


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