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Blog November 2023 Updated April 2024

Nitrous Oxide canisters are no laughing matter, but AI is powering early detection

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Conor Dowd

AMCS Director of Product Marketing

Nitrous oxide is a colorless gas that is used in various industries including the medical, food, automotive and electronics. In the food industry it is commonly sold in canisters and used as a propellant (whip pits) for whipped cream. The contents of such canisters are popularly referred to as ‘laughing gas’ and are sometimes misused as a recreational drug. Apart from the adverse health impacts, if filled canisters are exposed to sufficient heat, the gas expands inside them, and it can shatter the canister and cause an explosion and fire. 

Growing Problem of Fires 

Fires and explosions caused by improperly discarded gas canisters, vapes, and lithium-ion batteries are on the rise in collection vehicles, recycling, and energy recovery facilities across Europe and North America.

According to a recent report, Veolia UK alone has experienced around 25 serious incidents of explosions and damages at energy recovery facilities since January 2023 due to improperly discarded gas canisters.

In January 2023 alone, 4.7 tons of nitrous oxide waste were collected by regional cleaning services in the Brussels-Capital area of Belgium. It was also noted the canisters are getting larger in size (up to 2kg/ 4.5 lbs.) in response to stronger market demand. Three Brussels incinerators reported that they closed their operations for up to 48 hours after experiencing damage in their furnaces due to these larger canisters exploding in the extreme heat.

Call for Controls and Bans 

Waste operators have been to the fore in lobbying for controls of the sale of such canisters and authorities have responded accordingly. 

In Brussels, incinerators have introduced sanctions of a five day ban on collectors who bring canisters in their waste loads to their facilities, requiring collectors to perform inspections on their loads prior to disposal. 

In the US, there are no federal regulations on the sale of nitrous oxide, but some states are considering implementing their own restrictions. 

A ban has been enacted in the UK against the illegal possession of nitrous oxide due to both adverse health impacts and its impact on anti-social behavior.  This ban has been welcomed by industry bodies and recycling operators.

Richard Hulland, Chief Risk and Assurance Officer, Veolia UK, commented: “We welcome the recent change in the law as pressurized laughing gas canisters present a serious environmental and safety risk if incorrectly disposed of costing us up to £1.4 million in just the last year.’’

Nitrous Oxide and Climate Change 

Apart from the adverse public health and safety outcomes of incorrect disposal, it is also worth noting  that nitrous oxide is also a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. It has a global warming potential of about 300 times that of carbon dioxide and depletes the ozone layer. Correct disposal of canisters will therefore not only improve safety but reduce emissions and prevent climate change.

AI Solutions for smarter and earlier canister detection

While introducing controls on the sale of nitrous oxide canisters is hoped to reduce the incidences of fires, many recycling operators are looking to AI powered solutions to detect larger gas canisters at the point of collection.

AMCS is working with recycling operators to take continuous video stream images of collection vehicle hopper contents which are passed to our AI engine (AMCS Vision AI) which detects images of large gas canisters. This provides an early real-time alert to the operator who can divert the collection vehicle for safer disposal and management of the material. AMCS Vision AI will also allow detection of ‘hot spot’ areas as well as patterns to provide insights to provide the operator with insights.

This solution allows operators to reduce the risk of fires and explosion as well as avoid regulatory fines in some districts.

Commenting on this innovation, Ken Tierney (Senior Product Manager) commented: ‘’ AMCS Vision AI is another example of Artificial Intelligence providing both  automation and insights to maximize  safety and sustainability for our customers. The incorrect disposal of nitrous oxide canisters represents a clear and present danger for our customers and their communities so AMCS Vision AI provides another layer of protection.’’

Learn more about AMCS Vision AI can help you detect hazards such as nitrous oxide canisters as well as contaminated recyclables and overfilled containers here.

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