Lithium Ion Batteries - An Emerging Hazard
Lithium-ion batteries have become the standard power source for most portable devices. The technology allows for a powerful power source in a smaller package. The batteries do not have the memory effect that prior rechargeable batteries had that diminished their lifespan. Lighter wight and greater power have made lithium ion the battery of choice.
As no good deed goes unpunished, there is a downside to these batteries. They can present a very unique fire hazard that is hard to manage and produce a fire that is difficult to control.
Battery Chemistry and Hazard
A lithium-ion battery structure has an anode, and a cathode as does any battery. The passage of the lithium-ions between these two materials generates an electrical charge. The properties of lithium ion batteries allows superior power versus prior battery types. The flow of ions is in one direction when discharging and powering a device and the opposite direction when the battery is charging. The passage of these ions is done in an electrolyte solution that is commonly an organic solvent. The basic chemistry of the materials provides carbon, a fuel, oxygen contained in the anode and cathode materials and the electrolyte may be a flammable or combustible liquid. All of the ingredients for a sustained fire are present.
When there is damage to the cell or the onboard electronics that manage the charging and discharging fail, the battery can enter a runaway chemical reaction that leads to an explosion or fire.
Since all of the materials needed for combustion are present, the reaction is self-sustaining. The fire can be difficult to extinguish and may reignite easily after it appears to be extinguished. Fire protection methods for this hazard are still being developed.
Lithium-Ion batteries are probably in your pocket (smartphone), on your desk (laptop), in your car (EV), in the mail (musical greeting cards) and possibly in your home or office building as an energy storage system for wind or solar power or an uninterruptible power supply for critical equipment. You cannot ignore this hazard.
What to Do about this hazard
The batteries become hazardous when they are physically damaged. Original testing by UL was “blunt nail test” to see if the cell was strong enough to resist physical damage.
The second scenario is when the onboard circuitry that manages charging and discharging fails. Both of these hazards are manageable. UL testing and listing addresses both of these issues in manufacturing of the battery.
Buy devices and batteries that are UL Listed and from a reputable source. The market is full of unlisted cells that are cheap and therefore popular. You get what you pay for, so be a wise shopper when introducing this hazard into your life or home.
Charging and Discharging
Use the charger and cable that comes with your device. It is rated at the correct voltage and power output for the battery pack. If you are using other cables and charging devices make sure those devices and cables are UL listed. With the proliferation of USB charging systems, the quality of the cable becomes a paramount concern. Check the USB charger for a UL listing mark.
Do not alter the cell arrangement to increase power output. Connecting cells in series to increase voltage or capacity is outside the original design of the battery and may cause a failure.
Since lithium-ion batteries can retain a charge for a long period, treat any battery as a charged battery. Do not allow battery terminals to contact one another or a grounded surface. Lithium-ion batteries are shipped in protective sleeves or packages to keep the terminals from contacting each other. Use this same method to store batteries.
For devices with large batteries such as electric bikes and scooters, consider storing them in an area that is cut off from the balance of your facility with fire resistant construction and have fire detection equipment in this area. Prompt notification of a fire and the time purchased with fire resistant construction can make a difference in a fire event.
Do not assume that the lithium-ion battery is dead. It can still retain energy and disposing of this type of battery where it could contact another battery or grounded surface can create a fire. Before depositing the batteries in a recycle bin, apply tape over the terminals to prevent contact. There are disposal points that accept lithium batteries. Check https://www.call2recycle.org/ for a local disposal site. Many Home Depot, Lowes and Staples stores participate in this program.
Do not throw lithium-ion batteries into the trash. When the trash is compacted or processed the cells can be damaged and start a fire. This is becoming more frequent in landfills and recycling centers.
The Driehaus Difference
As fire experience data with these batteries and their devices continues to accumulate, there may be changes in building and safety codes to regulate this hazard. We also expect to see property insurers take notice of this new hazard. We follow these emerging trends so we can offer our clients sound risk management advice. Reach out to us for assistance and advice on your insurance and risk management programs. You can call us at 513-977-6860 or contact us via our website at www.driehauins.com We look forward to helping you with your insurance needs.