DATE: November 9, 2020
SNIP: Certain species of whales, seals and other endangered marine mammals could fall victim to COVID-19 infection through wastewater and sewage that seeps into their marine habitats, researchers at Dalhousie say in a new study that has found some of the animals to be highly susceptible to the virus.
In a study published in Science of the Total Environment, the team describes how it used genomic mapping to determine which marine mammals would be vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. They looked at key amino acids that the virus binds to and found that there were striking similarities between those in humans and in several marine mammals, including dolphins, beluga whales, seals and sea otters.
Graham Dellaire (shown left), director of research in the Department of Pathology at Dalhousie, led the research that used a modeling approach to predict a marine mammal’s susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2. The team found at least 15 marine mammal species were susceptible to infection from SARS-CoV-2 because of their ACE2 receptors—the critical protein required for the virus to enter and infect the cell.
Importantly, more than half of the species determined to be vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2 are already at risk globally.
“Many of these species are threatened or critically endangered,” says Dr. Dellaire. “In the past, these animals have been infected by related coronaviruses that have caused both mild disease as well as life-threatening liver and lung damage.”
The team predicts that the majority of whale, dolphin and porpoise species—18 out of 21—have the same or higher susceptibility to the virus as humans, while eight out of nine seal species are also predicted to be highly susceptible to SARS-CoV-2.
Studies have shown that SARS-CoV-2 is excreted in feces and can survive in water for up to 25 days, raising the possibility that wastewater provides a separate mode of spread for this coronavirus, as has happened in Spain, Italy and France where the virus was detected in untreated sewage.
For example, in Italy, SARS-CoV-2 was recently detected in untreated wastewater, while in Paris it was shown that high concentrations of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in sewage water between March and April 2020 correlated with a spike in deaths from COVID-19 about seven days later. In June, SARS-CoV-2 was also detected in the river water in Ecuador, where untreated sewage is delivered directly into natural waters.
Even wastewater treated via primary means has been shown to have detectible levels of SARS-CoV-2 RNA. Primary treated wastewater can be released from settling ponds or lagoons, a risk the researchers identified as a potential issue in Alaska where beluga whales could be infected from sewage leaking into local waterways from the state’s system of lagoons.
There have been no documented cases of SARS-CoV-2 in marine mammals to date, but both dolphins and beluga whales have been infected with related coronaviruses in the past. And since most marine mammals are social, it is also possible for coronaviruses to be spread between animals through close contact. So, an infected animal could threaten entire populations.
SOURCE: Yorkshire Bylines
DATE: November 8, 2020
SNIP: The UK is known as a nation of animal-lovers, yet it’s a terrible place to be a wild animal (or plant or fungus). For ours is one of the most nature-deprived countries on the planet, the “green and pleasant land” a pure fiction.
Chief responsibility for that lies with the supermarket and multinational-dictated food system that’s seen farmland turned to green desert, and the damage done by a decade of austerity to the support systems that are supposed to protect nature – Natural England seeing two-thirds of its funding slashed in that time.
But a significant proportion of the damage being done isn’t just metaphorically criminal, but legally so.
That fact was brought vividly to life last week, by the launch of what’s become (since 2017) an annual report on wildlife crime in England and Wales, by Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL), a coalition of 57 organisations that between them represent eight million members. I, and MPs and other peers, heard a succession of experts tell a tale of abuse, destruction, and government failure.
It’s easy to get exercised about individual actions: the horror tales of badger baiting and hare coursing, or the wanton destruction of crucial habitat by cynical developers in pursuit of windfall profits. But the message that came through loud and clear last week was that it is government failure that’s allowing many of these crimes to occur, and certainly ensuring that they are very, rarely punished.
There’s also concern that much wildlife-related crime is being enabled, or committed, online, with the report this year for the first time including a section on cybercrime. We have seen the creation of the Cyber Enabled Wildlife Crime Priority Delivery Group, led by the National Wildlife Crime Unit, which is progress; but the issue of the level of resources, against the scale of the problem, is pressing.
Public education is a further area in which government action is needed. We heard from Plantlife that many members of the public – with the growing interest in foraging and wild foods – may be breaking the law and causing ecological damage simply from lack of knowledge, rather than ill intention.
Britain is hosting the COP26 climate talks next year, so that’s getting – in what environmental space there is – a significant amount of focus. But next year is also the postponed COP15 for the Convention on Biodiversity, and the world will be examining the actions being taken by all governments. Failure to protect nature will be in the spotlight, and the UK will be in the dock.
SOURCE: Scientific American
DATE: November 6, 2020
SNIP: The space industry is growing and innovating at a pace not seen since the days of the moon landings. Fifty years ago, nearly everything related to space was a government-sponsored project. In 21st-century space, launch vehicle and satellite finance are most often bottom-line corporate investments or public-private partnerships.
Untethered from government leashes, the global space industry looks and operates increasingly like global aviation.
Sustainability has not much been a concern for space systems development. Just like their jet engine cousins, rocket engines emit a variety of gases and particles into the atmosphere that can have regional and even global consequences. Even so, launch vehicle environmental impacts are typically disregarded by comparing jet and rocket fuel consumption in an overly simplified way.
The argument goes like this: Rockets burn only 0.1 percent of the fuel that aircraft burn each year and are therefore only 0.1 percent of the emissions problem that aviation presents. But this is a case of false equivalence. Careful understanding of every phase of space flight shows that space emissions can impact the atmosphere in ways that are wholly different from, and in some cases larger than, aviation emissions.
Unlike with aviation, every layer of the atmosphere sees space industry emissions. While jet emissions into the troposphere are quickly washed away to the surface by precipitation, rocket emissions into the stratosphere clean away only slowly. Stratospheric emissions accumulate year over year, adding up exhaust from all of Earth’s launches and reentries over the past four or five years. In fact, the fragile ozone layer resides in the stratosphere, near where rocket emissions accumulate.
Rockets famously display brilliant exhaust plumes. Hydrocarbon-fueled rocket engine “flame” is mostly the incandescent glow of soot particles oxidizing in the hot plume. Soot production in rocket engines is complicated and not very well understood. Soot forms in fuel-rich combustion chambers, fuel-cooling nozzle walls and turbopump gas generators, and is partly consumed in the hot plumes. Jet engines have none of these complexities and burn very clean compared to rocket engine. Some types of hydrocarbon-fueled rocket engines emit hundreds of times more soot for each kilogram of fuel burned than do their jet engine cousins. And jets only occasionally fly in the stratosphere; rockets fly there every launch.
What is the concern about soot in the stratosphere? Black carbon soot (BC) very efficiently absorbs sunlight. The absorbed energy is transferred to surrounding air so that BC acts as a heat source, warming the stratosphere, which can in turn slightly change the circulation of the global atmosphere. And since ozone concentration is inversely proportional to temperature, a warmer stratosphere equates to depletion of the ozone layer. Is the BC emitted by the current global fleet of rockets great enough to have a significant impact on the global atmosphere? We do not yet know. The required climate models are only now being assembled. BC soot emission by hydrocarbon-fueled rockets, and its global impacts remain a mystery.
SRM plumes are even more brilliant than hydrocarbon-fueled plumes. White hot alumina droplets leaving the nozzle are the source for the SRM “flame. As with the chlorine gas emission, SRM plumes diffuse and eventually mix into the global atmosphere so that rocket alumina particles are found in random stratospheric air samples from equator to poles. In the 1990s, researchers discovered how ozone-destroying chemical reactions occur on the surface of SRM alumina particles, but alumina’s significance as a source of ozone depletion is not known. SRMs emit ozone-destroying chlorine gas, too, of course, and the double-sided nature of SRM ozone depletion remains poorly described. The 2018 World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Ozone Assessment acknowledged the large knowledge gaps and noted that further research is “warranted.”
Contrary to many media stories about the latest space junk reentry spectacular, space junk returning to Earth does not “disappear” upon reentry. Some parts of derelict spacecraft will survive reentry and reach the surface. However, most of the reentering mass vaporizes into a hot gas that quickly condenses into a spray of small particles. Thus, as with launch, bright plumes mean particle production. Unlike the chemically simple particles from launch, particles from reentering space junk will be a zoo of complex chemical types. Particles from vaporizing propellant tanks, computers, solar panels and other exotic materials will form around an 85-kilometer altitude then drift downward, accumulating in the stratosphere along with launch’s soot and alumina. Reentry is as much of an “emission” as launch.
The growing LEO megaconstellations, with thousands of satellites in each constellation, use reentry vaporization as the satellite end-of-life disposal mechanism. Once these constellations are deployed, hundreds of tons of nonfunctioning satellites will be “brought in” for disposal every year. Most of this mass will become particles in the middle atmosphere. Very little is known about reentry dust production, the microphysics of the particles and how reentry dust could affect climate and ozone.
The particles emitted by rocket launches and space debris reentries cause much larger changes in atmospheric chemistry, dynamics and radiation than rocket CO2 emissions. For the space industry, the “carbon footprint” is a complicated story that is yet to be appropriately defined.
SOURCE: New Scientist
DATE: November 5, 2020
SNIP: Animals in the Arctic, including reindeer and golden eagles, are migrating earlier due to climate change, say researchers who have gathered a huge amount of data to study the behaviour of 86 Arctic species over the past three decades.
“We have the ability to monitor animal movements on a very large scale,” says Eliezer Gurarie at the University of Maryland. “It seems that animals are unknowingly responding and adapting to climatic changes, and have been doing for years.”
Gurarie and his team used GPS tags and satellites to track the spring migration of more than 900 female reindeer over the past 15 years. They discovered that the females are migrating to give birth approximately a day earlier year on year, probably as a result of warming temperatures.
Earlier birthing times can be risky in northern parts of the Arctic, says team member Gil Bohrer at Ohio State University. “There are higher chances of these offspring encountering strong freak storms,” he says. If they do, many will inevitably die because they cannot handle extreme conditions that can see up to half a metre of snow.
Reindeer are already in decline, says Gurarie, and climate change is worsening the situation. This poses a threat to people living in the region who rely on them for fur and meat.
Similarly, golden eagles – which usually nest in the Arctic tundra – have been starting their spring migration half a day earlier each year over the past 25 years.
“The day-to-day variation of climate change is very small,” says Bohrer. “To understand how animals respond to climate change, you need a very long period of observation – something that has only recently been possible.”
SOURCE: Forbes and Woods Hole Institute
DATE: November 3, 2020
SNIP: Fresh concerns have been raised by international experts about the type of oil spilled into the coral lagoons of Mauritius in August, and which continues to impact marine life in the region.
Leading international scientists from both France and the United States late last week highlighted the highly ‘complex,’ ‘unusual’ and ‘surprising’ traits of the oil, which they have never seen in a major oil spill before. They have urgently called for samples of the original oil from the Wakashio to be sent to laboratories for further testing.
Speculation continues to circulate about the mysterious oil that was in the Wakashio and which caused the environmental catastrophe in Mauritius this summer. It is likely to leave a devastating legacy for decades to come. Once more, questions are being raised about what could have been mixed with the ship fuel oil and why proper oil fingerprinting has still not been conducted.
In major oil spills, cleanups would never have begun unless the basic characteristics of the oil are known – a process that takes mere hours. Each oil behaves very uniquely in different climates and regions, and even the UN’s shipping regulator, the IMO, admitted in August that they did not know how this oil would behave in Mauritian waters given the Southern Hemisphere’s winter conditions. That would make it all the more important to run an analysis of the characteristics of the oil before beginning any cleanup operation. This would be even more important given the acute toxicity that has led to over 50 whales and dolphins dying along Mauritius’ coast in the days following the oil spill, and thousands of sea creatures turning up dead along Mauritius’ coast.
One new theory emerging is that this could be an experimental form of the new Plastics-to-Fuel oil. If that was the case, the health and environmental consequences could be devastating to those in Mauritius who were in contact with these experimental chemicals. This would be much more serious than just an oil spill as it involves hazardous new and unknown chemicals.
[T]he oil could have been mixed with plastics, forming a toxic new chemical cocktail. In recent years, there has been a series of experiments to mix plastics with oil to produce new forms of ‘Frankenstein fuels.’
These hybrid fuels if spilled, would be highly toxic – much more so than if it had been ordinary heavy oil ship fuel.
Plastics are hydrocarbons, that are contained in a different format – solids, rather than the thick, peanut-butter like consistency of heavy ship oil. Burning this plastic releases energy, in the same way that burning heavy fuel oil does.
However, it is the toxic cocktail of chemicals that are mixed in to break down the plastics, that would make this chemical soup particularly lethal if leaked.
6.3 billion tons of plastic have been generated since plastics were first invented 60 years ago in the aftermath of WW2 as a ‘miracle’ new product. It’s success became its downfall, with single use plastics encroaching into every aspect of day to day life, encouraging a ‘throw away’ consumer culture.
Many Governments have been struggling with what to do with millions of tons of surplus single use plastics that have been collected in recycling efforts.
The same oil companies that produce plastics also produce heavy ship fuel products, and have been under increasing pressure in the last few years to develop solutions for this mounting plastics waste problem.
The plastics industry, knowing that pressure has been mounting against single use plastics, have been funding lobby groups to push forward the notion of a ‘Plastics-to-Fuels’ economy.
These sophisticated industry lobby groups have estimated that this new Plastics-to-Fuels industry could be worth $9 billion a year (with an additional $18 billion capital expenditure), generating almost 40,000 jobs in the US alone. For example, Shell is building one of the largest petrochemical plants in the US in Pennsylvania, specifically focused on producing over 1 million tons of plastic pellets a year. Given the global move away from single use plastics, this is a particularly surprising and controversial investment.
However, advocates of Plastics-to-Fuels solutions have never addressed the serious environmental consequences of these new chemical formulas if ever one was to leak, as could have been the case in Mauritius (only an oil fingerprint test can validate this).
The thinking had been that with a surplus of plastics in the world, mixing plastics with ship fuel could both solve the mounting plastics problem, and also allow the oil industry to recoup some of their investments in multi-billion dollar, large plastic plants.
As ship fuel is so much denser than car fuel, the plastics could be broken down chemically and added to ship fuel as part of the mixture without much visible difference. However, this could lead to serious engine damage.
[T]he full horrors of the devastation that a ship fuel spill with dissolved plastic could unleash has never been evaluated. It would be a combination of two of the worst possible products to be released into a dense population center and an important biodiversity hotspot. International scientists working on Plastics-to-Fuels products confirmed how serious this would be, but none wanted to appear on the record.
The health consequences of plastic nurdles with a heavy oil spill would be too horrendous to imagine. In the ocean, plastics break down into micro or nano particles called nurdles. The size and shape of the nurdles make a huge impact on how toxic the tiny fragments of plastics could be. The smaller the pieces (to microscopic levels, invisible to the human eye), the greater the toxicity to a wider variety of animal and human organs. This is because there are more ways for these plastics particles to be absorbed into the human of wildlife bodies (the rate at which chemicals can be absorbed into human or animal bodies is called bioavailability).
One of the pathways for harmful toxins to enter the body is through the accumulation of chemicals toxins onto the surface of the microscopic plastic nurdles. Whereas previously, the bodies defense mechanisms would prevent such toxins entering the body, now, these toxins hitch a lift on the microscopic plastic beads and essentially get absorbed into the lungs and digestive systems of humans and wildlife.
There are two chemicals that are a particularly deadly combination: Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons or PAHs (that are found in ship oil) and Bisphenol A or BPA (that is commonly used for water bottles and food containers).
Both could be found in a hybrid fuel of plastics and oil. These both have serious health consequences such as cancer, lung, brain, heart diseases, as well as long term and complex impacts on the reproductive organs. It is important to understand their impact if they were to have been mixed to produce experimental ship fuel.
The potential impact of three toxic substances – ship oil, plastics and the additional chemicals added to the plastics and oil mixture – would make this oil spill a particularly lethal chemical cocktail soup, and would need many years to fully understand the impact.
First Detailed Oil Sample Analysis Completed from Mauritius Oil Spill:
DATE: October 29, 2020
SNIP: Now the first ultra-high-resolution analysis of an oil sample from Mauritius shows that the material is a complex and unusual mix of hydrocarbons—and even though some of the components in it may have already degraded or evaporated, what remains still gives it the ability to persist in the environment.
Analysis by WA-OIGC at Curtin and also confirmed by WHOI’s Organic Geochemistry Analysis Lab showed that the sample contained relatively low levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are known carcinogens in humans and animals. Although low, the levels of PAHs might accumulate in certain parts of the marine environment.
SOURCE: The Guardian
DATE: October 30, 2020
SNIP: Humans are killing the endangered North Atlantic right whale far faster than previously thought, and experts say the window to act is quickly closing.
According to new modelling from the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, only 356 of the whales remain in the world — a significant decline from the 409 logged last year.
Of the remaining whales, only about 70 breeding females survive. Without decisive action, experts fear females could disappear in the next 10 to 20 years.
“It’s not just numbers. These are individuals that we’ve seen grow up as calves,” said Philip Hamilton, a researcher at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life. “To see them turning up dead or even worse, entangled in ropes where it takes a year to slowly die, is just gut-wrenching.”
While human-caused deaths remained low this year, researchers now realize the 17 fatalities recorded in 2017 vastly underestimated the scope of destruction. They now believe 42 whales died that year.
There is still room for optimism, said Hamilton, who first started working with the whales in the mid-1980s, when the population was less than 350.
“The numbers have been this low before,” he said. “But we have to stop killing them – we’re killing them at an alarming rate.”
And to survive, the whales will have to adapt to a rapidly changing ocean ecosystem, where changes to their feeding locations present a “double whammy”, said Hamilton.
“Managing environmental change, while also having their reproduction reduced, is just untenable,” he said.
While many people will never glimpse the graceful mammals that can reach 70,000 kilograms (77 tons), Hamilton remains deeply fascinated by a species hurtling towards extinction.
“The population is small enough that we literally know almost every one of them,” he said. “But we don’t know how they find their food. We don’t know how they navigate. They do some really interesting vocalizations that we don’t know … It’s just this exciting combination of so much knowledge and a tremendous amount of mystery.”
SOURCE: The Guardian
DATE: October 30, 2020
SNIP: The US and UK produce more plastic waste per person than any other major countries, according to new research.
The analysis also shows the US produces the most plastic waste in total and that its citizens may rank as high as third in the world in contributing to plastic pollution in the oceans. Previous work had suggested Asian countries dominated marine plastic pollution and placed the US in 20th place, but this did not account for US waste exports or illegal dumping within the country.
Data from 2016, the latest available, show that more than half of the plastic collected for recycling in the US was shipped abroad, mostly to countries already struggling to manage plastic waste effectively. The researchers said years of exporting had masked the US’s enormous contribution to plastic pollution.
“The US is 4% of the world’s population, yet its produces 17% of its plastic waste,” said Nick Mallos at the Ocean Conservancy and one of the study authors. “The US needs to play a much bigger role in addressing the global plastic pollution crisis.”
The size of the US contribution is likely to be the results of high income and consumption levels. “I assume we’re just the best consumers,” said Kara Lavender Law at the Sea Education Association and part of the research team.
Plastic waste has polluted the whole planet, from the deepest oceans to Arctic snow and Alpine soils, and is known to harm wildlife. Concern is also growing about the quantity of microplastics people consume with food and water, and by breathing them in.
A study led by Lau in September found that even if all currently feasible measures were used to cut plastic pollution it would fall by only 40%, putting 700m tonnes into the environment by 2040. “To avoid a massive buildup of plastic in the environment, coordinated global action is urgently needed to reduce plastic consumption, increase reuse, waste collection and recycling,” the study concluded.
China banned the import of plastic waste in 2018, and Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, India and Indonesia have followed with their own restrictions. The fate of the plastic no longer going to these countries is not yet fully known, but a Guardian investigation in 2019 found US plastic was being sent to some of the world’s poorest countries, including Bangladesh, Laos, Ethiopia and Senegal, where labour is cheap and environmental regulation limited.
Lavender Law said the Covid-19 pandemic was also increasing plastic waste, particularly discarded PPE, but that data on the scale of the issue was not yet available.
The researchers found the US produced the most plastic waste by World Bank reckoning, at 34m tonnes in 2016, but the total increased to 42m tonnes when the additional data was considered. India and China were second and third, but their large populations meant their figures for per capita plastic waste was less than 20% of that of US consumers.
Among the 20 nations with the highest total plastic waste production, the UK was second to the US per capita, followed by South Korea and Germany.
SOURCE: The Conversation
DATE: October 29, 2020
SNIP: Human damage to biodiversity is leading us into a pandemic era. The virus that causes COVID-19, for example, is linked to similar viruses in bats, which may have been passed to humans via pangolins or another species.
Environmental destruction such as land clearing, deforestation, climate change, intense agriculture and the wildlife trade is putting humans into closer contact with wildlife. Animals carry microbes that can be transferred to people during these encounters.
A major report released today says up to 850,000 undiscovered viruses which could be transferred to humans are thought to exist in mammal and avian hosts.
The report, by The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), says to avoid future pandemics, humans must urgently transform our relationship with the environment.
The report says, on average, five new diseases are transferred from animals to humans every year – all with pandemic potential. In the past century, these have included:
- the Ebola virus (from fruit bats),
- AIDS (from chimpazees),
- Lyme disease (from ticks),
- the Hendra virus (which first erupted at a Brisbane racing stable in 1994).
The report says an estimated 1.7 million currently undiscovered viruses are thought to exist in mammal and avian hosts. Of these, 540,000-850,000 could infect humans.
But rather than prioritising the prevention of pandemic outbreaks, governments around the world primarily focus on responding – through early detection, containment and hope for rapid development of vaccines and medicines.
This approach can also damage biodiversity – for example, leading to large culls of identified carrier-species. Tens of thousands of wild animals were culled in China after the SARS outbreak and bats continue to be persecuted after the onset of COVID-19.
Societal and individual behaviour change [is] needed. Exponential growth in consumption, often driven by developed countries, has led to the repeated emergence of diseases from less-developed countries where the commodities are produced.
SOURCE: The Guardian and Live Science
DATE: October 28, 2020
SNIP: The Trump administration has announced it will lift protections in Alaska’s Tongass national forest, permitting logging in the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest.
Experts call the Tongass the “lungs of the country” and one of nation’s last remaining bulwarks against climate change. Located on the southern coast of Alaska, it is made up of centuries-old western cedar, hemlock and Sitka spruce trees, and is home to immense biodiversity, including the largest-known concentration of bald eagles.
The administration’s decision ignores overwhelming public support for keeping protections in place on the Tongass, including resolutions from six south-east Alaska tribes and six south-east Alaska city councils against lifting protections. Of the public comments solicited on the plan, 96% were in favor of keeping protections in place.
Tribes also petitioned the government to protect customary cultural use areas of the Tongass. “All other avenues to protect our homelands have been exhausted, to little avail,” they wrote in their petition.
The Tongass has been safeguarded since 2001 by a “roadless rule”, which prohibits road construction, road reconstruction and timber harvesting in designated areas of national forests. It barred the construction of roads on some 58.5m acres, and in addition to the environmental benefits, the rule was motivated to protect US taxpayers from the costs of maintaining a web of US Forest Service roads “long enough to go to the moon and most of the way back with no way to maintain them”, said Ken Rait, project director of the Pew Charitable Trust, who two decades ago helped win the protections that Donald Trump is now undoing..
After a brief private meeting between the president and the Alaska governor, Mike Dunleavy, aboard Air Force One in June 2019, Trump ordered his administration to lift all protections from the forest.
“The Tongass is America’s Amazon,” Adam Kolton, executive director of Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement. “This presidentially directed move to gut roadless protections for our nation’s largest and most biologically rich national forest is a calamity for our climate, for wildlife and for the outdoor recreation economy of south-east Alaska.”
DATE: October 26, 2020
SNIP: The Environmental Services Association (ESA), which represents waste firms like Biffa, Veolia and Suez, says too many batteries are going into either recycling bins or black rubbish bags, where they are easily damaged by sorting equipment and start to burn – so-called “zombie” batteries.
The ESA has launched a campaign called Take Charge which encourages people to dispose of batteries properly.
“Unfortunately, the majority of batteries thrown away in the UK at the moment are not put in the proper recycling bins. Fires caused by carelessly discarded zombie batteries endanger lives, cause millions of pounds of damage and disrupt waste services,” says Jacob Hayler, executive director of ESA.
Lithium-ion batteries, which power mobile phones, tablets and toothbrushes, can be extremely volatile if damaged. CCTV footage taken at several recycling centres shows explosions sending flames and debris shooting across sorting areas.
And those sorts of batteries are a growing menace. Between April 2019 and March 2020, lithium-ion batteries were suspected to have caused around 250 fires at waste facilities. That is 38% of all fires, up from 25% compared to the previous year, according to the latest data from ESA.
In many cases the precise cause of a fire is never established but ESA says it is likely that lithium-ion batteries account for an even bigger proportion of fires.
Paul Christensen, professor of pure and applied electrochemistry at the University of Newcastle, has deliberately damaged lithium-ion batteries in experiments to make them explode. [H]e says that even small lithium-ion batteries, similar to the ones in your mobile phone, would explode “with a rocket flame” if punctured.
His real concern though is with the much bigger batteries found in electric cars, or used to store electricity in homes and businesses.
They are generally divided into many small cells and managed by software that keeps the battery running smoothly. But if a car crashes and some of those cells are damaged, the chemicals inside can generate huge of amounts of heat, damaging and igniting other cells.
“An electric vehicle will burn for much longer than an internal combustion vehicle. They give off potentially explosive and toxic fumes. They can reignite hours, days or weeks after the incident,” says Prof Christensen.
In February the UK government brought forward a ban on selling new petrol, diesel or hybrid cars from 2040 to 2035 at the latest.
Governments elsewhere in the world are also encouraging electric car sales – in China the government wants 25% of new cars sold to be electrified by 2025.
“That means not just more electric vehicles, but the production facilities will get more and bigger… the storage facilities are going to get more and bigger,” Prof Christensen says.