Trashed cellphones sparking fires; ASU team working to make lithium batteries safer

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Lithium-ion batteries shouldn't be thrown in the trash or put in normal recycling. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Lithium-ion batteries shouldn't be thrown in the trash or put in normal recycling. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
The common rechargeable batteries were linked to 65 percent of the waste facility fires in California last year. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) The common rechargeable batteries were linked to 65 percent of the waste facility fires in California last year. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
Lithium-ion batteries typically catch fire from overheating or from microscopic lithium “needles” – known as dendrites – that can sprout on a battery surface, according to ASU professor Hanqing Jiang. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Lithium-ion batteries typically catch fire from overheating or from microscopic lithium “needles” – known as dendrites – that can sprout on a battery surface, according to ASU professor Hanqing Jiang. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -

Don’t throw out that busted cell phone or laptop. Don’t put it in the normal recycling bin either.

That’s the message from city planners across the country after a growing number of fires in garbage trucks and at waste facilities linked to rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.

The common rechargeable batteries were linked to 65 percent of the waste facility fires in California last year. The state recently launched a public awareness campaign to encourage proper disposal of the batteries.

Lithium-ion batteries have also sparked serious fires in garbage trucks, including in New York City last year.

Besides cellphones and laptops, lithium-ion batteries are found in cameras, power tools, electric scooters and electric cars.

Last year, Phoenix firefighters battled a tricky blaze at a lithium battery warehouse near Deer Valley Road and Central Avenue.

While officials in the City of Phoenix’s Public Works Department say they aren’t aware of any significant issues at Valley waste transfer stations – most of the fires there have been linked to improperly discarded pool chemicals – researchers at Arizona State University are working on ways to make lithium batteries safer.

Lithium-ion batteries typically catch fire from overheating or from microscopic lithium “needles” – known as dendrites – that can sprout on a battery surface, according to ASU professor Hanqing Jiang.

Those needles can puncture the component in a battery that keeps the oppositely charged elements separate, he said.

Jiang led a team that recently published research showing a layer of soft silicone inside a lithium-metal battery can act as a shock absorber and prevent the formation of dendrites. Jiang said the technique could be applied to both lithium-ion and lithium-air batteries.

“Our idea is to remove the force,” he said. “With no force, there's no dendrite growth.”

What to do with unwanted lithium-ion batteries

Residents have several options to safely dispose of lithium-ion batteries.

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Derek StaahlDerek Staahl is an Emmy Award-winning reporter and fill-in anchor who loves covering stories that matter most to Arizona families.

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Derek Staahl

This once-uncompromising "California guy" got his first taste of Arizona in 2015 while covering spring training baseball for his former station. The trip spanned just three days, but Derek quickly decided Phoenix should be his next address. He joined CBS 5 and 3TV four months later, in August 2015. Before packing his bags for the Valley of the Sun, Derek spent nearly four years at XETV in San Diego, where he was promoted to Weekend Anchor and Investigative Reporter. Derek chaired the Saturday and Sunday 10 p.m. newscasts, which regularly earned the station's highest ratings for a news program each week. Derek’s investigative reporting efforts into the Mayor Bob Filner scandal in 2013 sparked a "governance crisis" for the city of San Diego and was profiled by the region’s top newspaper. Derek broke into the news business at WKOW-TV in Madison, WI. He wrote, shot, edited, and presented stories during the week, and produced newscasts on the weekends. By the end of his stint, he was promoted to part-time anchor on WKOW’s sister station, WMSN. Derek was born in Los Angeles and was named the “Undergraduate Broadcast Journalism Student of the Year” in his graduating class at USC. He also played quads in the school’s famous drumline. When not reporting the news, Derek enjoys playing drumset, sand volleyball, and baseball.

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