This month’s fire at a South Korea lithium-ion battery factory that killed 22 people highlights the risk associated with lithium-ion battery fires.  Scrap metal recycling facilities are among those vulnerable to lithium-ion battery fires and other types of fires as well.  The scrap metal recycling industry has been at the forefront of efforts to detect and protect against industrial fires.  Technology such as infrared cameras, sensors and other fire detection devices continue to evolve and are at the forefront of efforts to stop fires before the start.   

Authorities believe that the factory fire near Seoul was started when a single battery cell caught fire and triggered a series of blasts.  These battery fires are hard to extinguish because they release toxic gases and burn at a very high heat.  State-of-the-art technology being developed and used by scrap yards today is designed to alert staff to the presence of this increasing heat to stop the fire before it starts.

Why scrap yards are susceptible to fires

The nature of the scrap metal recycling industry leaves it vulnerable to potential fires.

A scrap yard will receive potential fire hazards like propane and gas tanks, paints, oil, grease, lubricants, plastics, wood, tires, and other hazardous materials that are co-mingled with recyclables.  This material may end up being crushed, cut, compacted or shredded during the recycling process, leading to greater fire risk.  Sometimes workers may not know containers still hold traces of flammable substances, piles of oil-coated metal can ignite when pressure is generated, or sparks from friction can ignite flammable materials.    

There are several theories about the increase in the number of yard fires.  First is the increasing number of lithium-ion batteries in the waste stream. Lithium-ion batteries are in an increasing number of consumer goods and e-waste. Most people are familiar with the rechargeable batteries in their laptops, smart phones and tablets, but these small batteries are also in musical greeting cards, smart watches, GPS devices, electronic cigarettes and earbuds.  Unlike traditional alkaline batteries, lithium-ion batteries can become very hot and start to smoke and catch fire if they are broken or crushed.  With potential fires already present in the scrap metal recycling process, when lithium-ion batteries enter this waste stream, there is an even greater potential for fires.  

For many years, industry associations and government agencies have been offering guidance to help reduce the number of yard fires.  Back in 2008, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published “Guidance for the Identification and Control of Safety and Health Hazards in Metal Scrap Recycling” that included guidelines to avoid scrapyard fires because of their many negative consequences.  In 2021, the Recycled Materials Association (ReMA), formerly known as ISRI, published a report offering guidance to help recyclers reduce the number of yard fires.  The document, “Creating a Fire Prevention and Management Plan,” was developed by professionals in the fields of scrap recycling, fire science and insurance. 

Fire detection devices available for scrap yards today   

Some recyclers and municipal waste facilities have invested in fire monitoring systems which remotely detect increases in heat or “thermal detection” and can also in the early stages of a fire remotely deploy a cooling agent to put the fires out.  These companies advocate using both technology and improved processes to cut down fire risk.  New technology for early fire detection systems includes using the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and infrared devices (IR).

The term IoT refers to equipment that has been embedded with software which can process information.  For fire detection and prevention this means heat sensors, thermal cameras, instruments and other devices.  When connected, these things can monitor what is going on and deliver information about conditions.  The information can be sent to large groups of people via voice call, text or email to alert the proper people to respond to a threat.

IR cameras are being used increasingly to detect rising temperatures in real time indicating a fire may start.  An IR camera is more effective than the traditional smoke detector, because using thermal imaging it can identify hot spots before there is smoke.  There is still a role for smoke detectors, however.  Aspiration Smoke Detector (ASD) systems allow enhanced sensitivity to smoke particles through air sampling and laser detection technologies.  Technology allows for various alerts to be sent based on the seriousness of the detected threat.  A small temperature increase, for instance, might trigger a low-priority alert for a staff investigation, whereas a high temperature threat would trigger fire alarms and send alerts to fire departments.  

Another potential benefit of newer fire detection systems is that they can be integrated with a company’s existing security monitoring infrastructure.  This would include weaving the fire detection components, like smart infrared cameras and monitoring technology, directly with the security system already in place. In this way, fire detection mechanisms can be seamlessly integrated, ensuring that all security system components interface with each other and communicate effectively.

The wave of the future

In response to the increase in and severity of lithium-ion battery fires and other fire hazards, fire detection and suppression systems have evolved dramatically with the help of cutting-edge technology.  Today, scrap metal recyclers have access to advanced sensors and cameras, which with the Internet of Things and AI can make great strides to protect lives and property.   

About ScrapWare Corporation: Since 1989, Rockville, Maryland-based ScrapWare Corporation has been the software of choice for the recycling industry. Its ease of installation and simplicity saves users time and money while helping them achieve compliance and maintain accurate business insights. With state-of-the-art functionality tailored to each organization’s unique requirements, ScrapWare is an advanced dynamic software solution that alleviates the most pressing recycling industry worries. For more information, please call (301) 517-8500 or visit