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Blazing a trail – innovative solutions to reduce the risk of battery fires

Our goal: Identify innovative ways to boost safety in the recycling industry 

You don’t have to look very far to find a story about a small and seemingly insignificant wayward battery causing a big problem. These days, our news channels and social media feeds regularly include reports of fires in waste collection vehicles and waste disposal facilities – and batteries that have not been disposed of correctly increasingly turn out to be the culprit. The issue has become all-consuming for the recycling industry. It’s time that something changed, and it’s time for us to make that change. With our innovative technological solutions, PreZero is powering up to extinguish the risk of battery fires.

The risk of battery fires: Causes and effects

In the very worst cases, fires fueled by batteries that have been disposed of incorrectly can have an enormous impact on environmental service providers. Fires that break out in vehicles and sorting plants can rapidly spread out of control, causing extensive damage that is expensive to repair, or that can even close down a plant completely. While there are already various technological solutions to tackle the issue, it is still essential to keep awareness on consumer side high and provide training for employees in the waste disposal sector – because safety always has to come first.

But if all this is true, why are fires in containers, waste disposal vehicles, and plants still on the rise? The fact that more and more of the products we use every day now rely on batteries is a huge contributing factor. Even if a consumer wants to dispose of a battery correctly, they might not realize that a product – a single-use e-cigarette, for example – contains one, let alone know how to dispose of it. Initiatives to inform consumers therefore remain highly important. According to estimates, there is on average one lithium-ion battery in every metric ton of residual waste.

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Battery fires and their consequences for the circular economy

Burning waste also has an impact on the circular economy. If a fire occurs at a recyclable waste sorting plant, for example, the recycling loop for lightweight packaging could suffer significant disruption. The material loop for batteries and electronic devices would also lose out on valuable raw materials. And this is still happening even though appropriate battery recycling schemes are in place.

The ongoing fire risk is of huge importance to us as an environmental service provider. Marcel Fortuin, Head of Innovation at PreZero International, is always on the lookout for innovative ideas: “The sector already has some solutions in place to detect fires at the earliest possible stage. However, when a fire does break out, it is very difficult to extinguish it. We wanted to adopt a proactive and pragmatic approach to take a fresh look at the problem from “outside the box”. We know that we need to be open to new ideas and think differently to come up with new solutions and innovative approaches. So that’s what we’re doing.”

It’s time to act: Taking responsibility and taking the lead

We know that things can’t continue as they are. As an environmental service provider with our own recycling and sorting plants, depots, and waste collection vehicles, our responsibility is three-fold:  

  1. We need to protect our employees.
  2. We need to prevent costly damage to assets. 
  3. We need to help conserve resources and make the greatest possible contribution to the circular economy.  

Our goal now is to generate ideas to fulfill these responsibilities. 

How lithium batteries cause fires

When a lithium battery is damaged, it can take anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes for a flame to ignite, depending on the type and size of the battery. This flame then ignites other flammable waste in the area. Usually, the fire can be put into one of the following two categories: Sudden fires occur when a lithium battery is placed in a shredder or is damaged by another piece of recycling equipment, or when a heavy-duty vehicle like a front-loader smashes a battery concealed in a batch of waste. Delayed fires occur when a damaged lithium battery in a batch of waste begins to smolder and bursts into flames later. Special equipment and training are essential to extinguish lithium battery fires. Each type of fire requires a different approach: Sudden fires can be combated most effectively using technical solutions like fixed fire extinguishing systems, while delayed fires are more suited to measures like prevention management and raising awareness. 

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New ideas: Our first hackathon

Marcel Fortuin believes that collaboration is the key to success: “With more conscious action from political actors and from consumers, we can make huge progress – and if we add our solutions into the mix, we can go even further. The better our solutions, the better we will become.” PreZero’s commitment to innovation and positive change is rooted in the company’s corporate values of daring to venture down new paths and providing space and time to nurture new ideas. The strategy has already begun to pay off over the past year: Our engineers and employees have tested a number of promising technologies in our plants, and we are confident that we’ll have positive results to report very soon.

These milestones and our positive outlook for the future are a direct result of this approach. To break away from old patterns and tackle the issue from a new angle, we came up with the idea  of holding a hackathon that took place in April 2023. We invited students from a variety of disciplines to visit us at PreZero, where we briefed them on the problem of battery fires.

To prepare for the hackathon, the students – from the Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University, the Technical University of Munich, Heilbronn University of Applied Sciences, and the 42 Heilbronn coding school – visited the lightweight packaging sorting plant in Ölbronn. Plant Manager Steffen Schott walked the students through the sorting process and answered their initial questions, providing information that the students would later draw on during the hackathon itself.

The event commenced with the 25 students gathering for an informal meeting at the Bildungscampus in Heilbronn. Marcel Fortuin introduced the topic and the task, and the group was divided into teams. The participants then had 24 hours to develop and present their solutions. Joachim Folmer and Joachim Häffner from PreZero Germany were on hand to provide specialist technological support.

Collaborative solutions, shared benefits

The groups came up with a wide range of ideas that spanned all aspects of the sorting process – from an incentive scheme for consumers, to presorting and battery detection systems for the sorting plant. One of the ideas stood out as particularly promising, and we are now in the final stages of testing ​​a technology that detects batteries at an early stage and removes them from the sorting process. We are confident that we will be able to reveal more about this innovation very soon, and herewith contribute to even higher safety standards in future. Nevertheless, removing batteries at the earliest stage of the process, of course remains the best way to avoid fires.

Our task now, following successful completion of the pilot phase, is to scale up the idea for series rollout. “If we can achieve that, we’ll make a huge leap forward in terms of safety,” says Marcel Fortuin. “That’s why we are firm believers in the idea of working together to find solutions and promote synergies.” In addition to tackling the issue of battery fires, PreZero now plans to work together with industry partners, educational establishments, and other creative thinkers to develop solutions for other critical challenges that lie ahead on the journey to circularity – ​​all with the overarching goal of supporting a seamless circular economy and in line with our vision of “New thinking for a cleaner tomorrow”. We’re taking action!

Want to learn more about our fascinating projects or contact our innovation team? Visit our website here: https://innovationhub.prezero.com/de/.