• Press Release

April 21, 2020

Underwriters Laboratories Xplorlabs® Launches New Virtual Education Resource


How the birth and death of a lithium-ion battery impacts our environment and safety

NORTHBROOK, Ill.  April 14, 2020  Underwriters Laboratories today announced a new learning module for its Xplorlabs® platform. The latest release in a series of free, innovative STEM education platforms, this digital learning module follows a lithium-ion battery on its journey from extraction within the earth to its life as a battery and then examines what happens when the battery is discarded. This learning module, titled “Extraction to E-waste: The Lithium-ion Battery Supply Chain,” enables secondary educators in schools and communities reach the next generation of problem-solvers—helping then develop critical scientific reasoning skills and the curiosity to solve real-world challenges.

Supported by Underwriters Laboratories researchers and engineers, the module combines 3D modeling and timeline satellite imagery. Together, these components illustrate the supply chain journey of the lithium-ion battery inside a mobile phone. “The Lithium-ion Battery Supply Chain” has applications in science, engineering, social studies and environmental science while also addressing scientific literacy for students. Students contextualize the STEM curriculum through experiential, scientific learning, and once equipped with a greater understanding of the supply chain complexities facing the world, students are immersed in a real-world case study. They are able to discover and design their own solutions to address the issues associated with the supply chain.

“The use of lithium-ion batteries continues to grow as the world moves to a more connected, innovative and technologically driven future,” said Tom Chapin, vice president of research at Underwriters Laboratories. “As the demand for lithium-ion batteries grows, we have to think about the inevitable end-of-life issues for the battery product life cycle, like what happens to your old mobile phone. Innovation can be seen as a boon and a cautionary tale; we can’t always anticipate how new technologies will affect society or the environment. Over time, previously unknown or little understood consequences can build up to a level requiring urgent attention or mitigation.” 

Underwriters Laboratories’ education and outreach programs address some of the world’s greatest safety threats and contribute to building a global community that promotes safety, security and sustainability worldwide. Lithium-ion batteries can help achieve this goal: They power technology like medical devices, satellites, and electric vehicles,” said Kelly Keena, director of education and outreach at Underwriters Laboratories. “Unfortunately, e-waste and other parts of the lithium-ion battery supply chain also pose challenges to safety, transport and sustainability. By understanding and addressing these challenges, we can build communities that are truly safe, resilient and sustainable.”

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 11 aims to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. According to a Jan. 24, 2019 report on chemicals and waste, the UN estimates that industries produce 50 million tons of e-waste globally every year. Often this waste, including discarded cell phones and their batteries, is disposed of in ways that threaten human and environmental health. 

“Without solutions to this problem, that number will grow by millions of tons every year,” Keena added. “Our goal with this module is to show the long-term impacts this issue has on the environment and our safety. Students can work to solve this problem through their own actions and help design better solutions.”
UL Xplorlabs® was created in early 2017 to encourage a new generation of problem solvers to find solutions to real-world engineering challenges. The first module, “Portable Electrical Power”, explores the science of lithium-ion batteries and thermal runaway. In this context, students practice scientific inquiry and use design thinking to consider how safer products may be engineered. The second module, “Fire Forensics: Claims and Evidence”, is meant to provide students with an understanding of fire, fire dynamics and fire behavior. With this understanding, students are challenged to play the role of fire investigators: They must explain the results of a virtual burn scene investigation using a claims, evidence and reasoning strategy, which is the language of scientists and engineers.  

To find out more about this free, high-quality educational resource, visit ULxplorlabs.org or follow @ULXplorlabs on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

About Underwriters Laboratories 
Underwriters Laboratories is a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the UL public safety mission through the discovery and application of scientific knowledge. We conduct rigorous independent research and analyze safety data, convene experts worldwide to address risks, share knowledge through safety education and public outreach initiatives, and develop standards to guide safe commercialization of evolving technologies. We foster communities of safety, from grassroots initiatives for neighborhoods to summits of world leaders. Our organization employs collaborative and scientific approaches with partners and stakeholders to drive innovation and progress toward improving safety, security, and sustainability, ultimately enhancing societal well-being. To learn more, visit UL.org.