Understanding the dangers of lithium-ion batteries
By Brian Kabateck
Laptops, smartphones, tablets, portable power packs, wireless headphones, power tools, drones, scooters, e-bikes, and electric vehicles are the top Christmas items on this year’s wish list.
If you’re shopping for holiday gifts — a big-ticket surprise or a little stocking stuffer — there’s a good chance something powered by a lithium-ion battery is in your shopping cart.
Lithium-ion batteries, available since the 1990s, are low in weight and high in energy density, meaning they can hold a lot of power relative to their size—260 to 270 wh/kg compared to a lead acid battery’s 50 to 100 wh/kg—while weighing 50-60% less. They’re rechargeable; high-performance lithium-ion batteries can last up to 10X longer than traditional batteries.
Lithium-ion batteries are also commonly considered a greener alternative—using fewer toxic chemicals and no toxic heavy metals, helping us minimize waste and using more carbon-intensive energy sources. (However, this notion is getting more pushback recently because the mining needed to extract lithium has a significant adverse environmental impact.)
Lithium-ion batteries are everywhere, powering our daily lives—every mobile call, text, and social media post, every word we tap into our laptops, the music we listen to, and the electric vehicles we increasingly drive.
But while lithium-ion batteries have undeniable benefits, many people do not know that they also have serious risks—mainly fire and explosion.
How does a lithium battery catch fire?
A lithium-ion battery has three main components:
- The electrodes: anode (negative) and cathode (positive)
- A separator between the two electrodes
- An electrolyte, which fills the rest of the space within the battery
The anode and cathode can store lithium ions. Energy is released as lithium ions move between the electrodes via the electrolyte.
The Fire Protection Association (FPA, U.K.) explains, “Lithium-ion battery cells combine a flammable electrolyte with significant stored energy, and if a lithium-ion battery cell creates more heat than it can effectively disperse, it can lead to a rapid uncontrolled release of heat energy, known as ‘thermal runaway’, that can result in a fire or explosion.”
In September, San Diego became the first California city to propose new legislation to regulate the storage and disposal of lithium-ion batteries. Recent incidents have raised serious concerns about consumer safety, and officials believe more oversight is critical.
According to the FPA, several conditions can cause a thermal runaway to occur:
- Physical damage, such as dropping or piercing
- Exposure to an outside heat source
- Overcharging or over-discharging
- Lithium plating (metallic lithium forms on an anode surface within the battery cell)
- Manufacturing defect that causes an internal short circuit
A lithium-ion battery fire is hazardous.
Only certain classes of fire extinguishers will put out lithium-ion battery fires. While water provides a cooling effect and may put out initial flames, it does not provide an oxygen barrier. As the water evaporates, thermal runaway continues. The cells may burst, spreading fire to surrounding areas and, potentially, other batteries and devices.
Even after all visible fire is extinguished, the batteries can continue to self-generate heat uncontrollably, increasing in temperature until they reignite or explode minutes, hours, or days later—causing severe property damage, personal injury, or even death.
Unfortunately, it’s tough to determine whether the lithium-ion battery in one of your devices might be at risk of catching fire or blowing up just by looking at it in day-to-day use.
But there are basic steps you can take to ensure you’re doing everything you can to use your lithium-ion battery-powered devices as safely as possible.
What you need to know about lithium-ion battery safety:
- Know what you have. Almost any device you plug in to recharge is likely running on a lithium-ion battery.
- Always charge devices with the original charger supplied by the manufacturer. Read and follow charging and use instructions carefully.
- Use batteries from a reputable manufacturer/supplier, never aftermarket or generic. Look for batteries certified by a Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory.
- Be careful where you charge. Plug your charger directly into an outlet, not an extension cord, adapter, or power strip. Do not charge them on your nightstand, bed, or couch.
- Don’t keep lithium-ion devices near one another. Keeping them close together does not increase the fire risk, but it may spread between devices if a fire starts.
- Don’t leave lithium-ion batteries/devices unattended while charging. Don’t charge your devices or e-vehicles while sleeping; don’t leave them on the charger when you go out.
- Don’t overcharge your lithium-ion battery. Disconnect from the charger when the charge is complete. Overcharging can prompt a thermal runaway.
- Use, store, and charge your devices in mild conditions. Avoid very high or low temperatures. Don’t leave your phone in direct sunlight or a hot car; don’t leave anything covering your charger. Do not charge at temperatures below 32°F (0°C) or above 105°F (40°C).
- Store your lithium-ion batteries and devices in a cool, dry place away from combustible or flammable materials.
- Do not attempt to recharge a malfunctioning battery or one that shows signs of damage. Stop using it if you notice an odor, color change, excessive heat, change in shape, leakage, or strange noises. Protect batteries against damage such as crushing, impact, or puncture.
- Dispose of used or faulty batteries properly. It is illegal to place batteries in a trash or recycling bin.
- If a fire starts, learn what to do in case of a lithium-ion battery fire.
It’s no fun to think about worst-case scenarios during the holidays. Enjoy the presents you give and get! Just know the dangers of lithium-ion batteries and how to care for your devices to minimize risk.
If you or someone you love has suffered a burn injury due to a lithium-ion battery malfunction, talk to the experienced defective product lawyers at Kabateck LLP.