Lithium-ion batteries – Safety issues and solutions
Portability and convenience
Rechargeable battery technology has changed our lives immensely. Just about every electronic device has the option to be portable and with this has come the need for batteries to power them. From mobile phones, smart wearables, power tools, cameras, household appliances, e-scooters, electric vehicles (EVs) and medical devices. The younger generation don’t even know of a time without smart phones and portable computers.
Lithium-ion batteries use a liquid electrolyte and are the ones installed in our laptops, smartphones and electric vehicles. These batteries have a high energy density, are light weight, can be charged and emptied hundreds of times before deteriorating and are highly flammable.
Although the fire risk is very low with high-quality lithium-ion batteries and a good battery management system, they can overheat or explode, particularly when used, charged or stored incorrectly.
So why do failures happen?
- Improper manufacturing
- Design flaws
- Improper use and storage (overcharging or overheating)
- Charger use
- Poor quality components
- Damage – punctured, swollen or blistered
What happens when they fail?
Lithium-ion batteries have a unique failure problem known as thermal runaway, a chain reaction within a battery cell that can be very difficult to stop once it has started. They burn at an extremely high temperature, do not require oxygen to burn and can reignite under water.
Overheating the battery causes the flammable electrolyte to evaporate and vent out of the battery cells as toxic gas. These gases include hydrogen fluoride which can cause death and can threaten the general public and fire fighters.
According to ABC News, more than 450 fires have been linked to lithium-ion batteries over the past 18 months, according to data provided by state fire departments in Australia. Fire and Rescue NSW is responding to more than three fires every week involving lithium-ion batteries.
How to avoid fires and stay safe?
There are many ways to avoid lithium-ion battery fires and be safe in your own home and they include:
- Purchase and use products from reputable manufacturers and suppliers.
- Only use the charger supplied with the device.
- Check that chargers bear the Regulatory Compliance Mark, to show that it has met the relevant Australian Standards.
- Charge scooters outside and away from direct heat.
- Unplug your vehicle or device once they are fully charged.
- Don’t charge devices in close proximity to other heat sources or combustible materials, such as clothing and bedding.
- Do not use a battery that is damaged, swollen or blistered.
- If a battery smells bad or make strange sounds when charging, switch off the charger.
- Ensure smoke/heat alarms are installed.
What should you do in the case of a lithium-ion battery fire?
Remember that your safety and the safety of those around you are the most important. If you are travelling in an EV, you should immediately evacuate all passengers from the vehicle, call 000 and do not attempt to extinguish the fire yourself.
If there is a fire at home that you suspect is from a rechargeable battery you should:
- Switch off the charger if it’s safe to do so.
- Remove yourself from the area as soon as possible to avoid the risk of fire and toxic vapours from the battery.
- Evacuate yourself and all residents close by.
- A small fire can be extinguished with water but the battery heat could cause it to reignite.
- Call 000 and request the fire service.
What is to be done?
Education and consumer awareness is needed on the safety hazards and correct usage and storage of lithium-ion devices in homes.
In regard to EV charging station development and installation, the National Construction Code needs to be updated to include the changing requirements.
Developers should consult with the fire brigade and fire safety engineers before including or adding charging stations to residential and commercial buildings.