December 5, 2023
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Smoldering Threat: Are Lithium-Ion Batteries a Real Danger to People and Property?

In the era of digital innovation and mobility, lithium-ion batteries are the beating heart of the industry and everyday devices such as phones, laptops, electric bicycles, and scooters. However, does this heart pump excessively “hot” blood at a time when fires associated with these devices are becoming more common, and what is the industry’s response to the need for getting the best of both worlds in terms of energy and safety?

By: Mirza Bahic;

Lithium-ion batteries are often revered today as the “engines of the 21st century.” As an important energy storage solution for portable electronic devices and electric vehicles, these devices are a “Promethean” fire for a world that constantly seeks increased mobility, digitalization, connectivity, and sustainability in one package. However, with the widespread use of these devices, there has also come an increased and statistically well-supported danger of fires breaking out in situations that are still unfamiliar to many.

Is the “Flaw” Inherent in the Battery Design Itself?

At its core, lithium-ion batteries consist of multiple smaller cells, each containing two electrodes separated by a separator. These cells facilitate the movement of charged particles, known as lithium ions (hence the name), through a conductive solution between the electrodes. This process involves charging and discharging, allowing the battery to store and release energy, powering a wide range of mobile devices from laptops to electric vehicles.

When a lithium-ion battery is being charged, lithium ions migrate from the positive electrode (cathode) through the conductive electrolyte and move toward the negative electrode (anode), where they are stored. During discharge, the process is reversed, with lithium ions returning to the positive electrode, creating an electric current that powers the device.

The choice of lithium as the primary element in batteries is due to its lightweight nature and high energy density associated with it. Compared to traditional batteries like nickel-cadmium or lead-acid, lithium-ion batteries offer significantly greater energy storage capacity, making them ideal for portable devices requiring long-lasting power.

So, the answer to the question in the title is straightforward: lithium-ion batteries are not inherently unsafe by design. If they are manufactured and used according to industry standards, they are generally considered safe devices. However, it’s important to note that there are inherent risks associated with the operation of lithium-ion batteries, which can be attributed to various factors such as temperature changes, physical damage, overcharging, manufacturing defects, or improper use.

Why Do Lithium-Ion Batteries Pose a Security Risk?

Lithium-ion batteries have quenched the world’s perpetual thirst for portable energy, allowing us to stay connected across the clock, work efficiently, and push new boundaries in transportation. However, along with all the undeniable advantages, these devices also carry concrete safety risks, primarily related to fire outbreaks in fully unexpected situations.

But if we have established that these devices are not inherently unsafe, why are reports of fatal fires and significant material damage spreading through the media like wildfire today? The reason is simple and relates to the law of large numbers – these devices are more popular than ever today, and their rapid adoption has not been accompanied by an equally diligent campaign to raise awareness about their proper handling and incident management.

First and foremost, when lithium-ion batteries become defective or sustain damage, they can pose a significantly greater danger of fire and explosions. Several factors can contribute to battery failure, including improper use and storage or incorrect charging techniques.

Physical impacts such as dropping, crushing, or puncturing the battery can cause damage that compromises the integrity and safety of these devices. External sources of heat, such as open flames or heaters, as well as temperatures exceeding 55 degrees Celsius, can accelerate the deterioration of devices with damaged cells or those with manufacturing defects.

Similarly, charging lithium-ion batteries at temperatures below freezing can lead to the formation of a permanent metal coating of lithium on the anode. This coating increases the risk of battery failure and, consequently, fire incidents.

Therefore, adhering to the manufacturer’s instructions for charging devices and batteries is crucial in preventing damage to these devices. To reduce the risk, some chargers employ a cyclic power supply mechanism to avoid overcharging, while fast chargers often lack this feature, making user vigilance crucial in such cases. Nevertheless, the industry recommendation is to use chargers according to the manufacturer’s instructions to maintain battery safety.

How to Prevent Thermal Runaway?

Essentially, it is crucial to avoid putting the battery in a “faulty” state. However, what if this has already happened without the user’s awareness of the problem?

In the case of battery failure, the heat generated during the operating process can damage nearby cells, triggering a chain reaction known as a thermal runaway. The high energy density of lithium batteries makes them more prone to such reactions. Depending on factors such as the battery’s chemical composition, size, design, types of components, and stored energy capacity, failures in lithium cells can result in chemical reactions and the initiation of combustion, leading to heat release and excessive pressure.

The chemical reactions inside the battery can raise this pressure to a point where the cell walls expand and byproducts leak from the solution. These byproducts include carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and hydrocarbons, which are highly flammable and contribute to fire outbreaks and even explosions in lithium-ion batteries.

As an exacerbating factor in battery ignition, combustion can also cause the separation of fluorine from lithium salts in the battery. When mixed with water vapor, fluorine can produce hydrofluoric acid, a highly dangerous substance that can have long-term but initially unnoticeable effects on human health.

Given all the above, it is clear that a comprehensive understanding of these processes and incorporating knowledge of their mechanics is imperative in developing guidelines and best practices for safely handling these devices.

The Ecological Transition and Affordability Fuel the Fires

Seemingly unrelated global events have also had an impact on shifting the spotlight toward lithium-ion batteries as a security risk. After the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the use of scooters and e-bikes significantly increased, especially in the segment of delivery services and commuting. This sudden surge led to a spike in the price of these transportation devices, prompting individuals to seek manufacturers with lower quality control standards for their battery systems.

Once the market stabilized, the demand for lithium-ion batteries continued to experience significant and rapid growth, primarily driven by the needs of the ecological transition. Li-Bridge, an organization dedicated to the development of a supply chain for lithium-based batteries, states that the global demand for lithium-ion batteries is expected to increase more than fivefold by 2030.

This demand is closely followed by the rising number of associated fire incidents. According to insurance company Zurich, in 2021 alone, there was an increase of nearly 150% in the number of fires caused by lithium-ion battery explosions in e-scooters and e-bikes. Simultaneously, the number of such fires continued to rise by an additional 28% by the end of September 2022 compared to the monthly average in 2021.

The city of New York can serve as a litmus test for dominant safety trends in this market. In 2019, there were 30 fires attributed to the use of batteries in electric bikes or scooters in New York. A year later, this number increased to over 40. By 2021, the frequency of fires more than doubled, reaching a total of 104 incidents in just this city.

Ultimately, by the end of 2022, lithium-ion batteries were identified as the cause of 220 fires in New York, resulting in six fatalities and 147 injuries. These figures have prompted emergency services to seek professional assistance in identifying the causes of these occurrences to reduce their frequency.

Delayed Fires as a Unique Firefighting Challenge

One of the major causes of fires in electric vehicles and scooters is traffic accidents that result in battery damage. They can lead to the rupture of battery cells, causing internal short circuits and accompanying fires. Unlike vehicles with conventional engines, electric vehicles experience a unique phenomenon of “delayed” fires after a collision, which poses a specific risk for emergency services that are only just becoming familiar with this occurrence.

Pioneering research in this field was conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in the United States. The Board investigated several incidents involving delayed ignition of lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles. Instead of the expected battery ignition during or immediately after the collision, it was observed that the vehicles caught fire several hours or even several days after the incident.

For example, in Lake Forest, California, an electric SUV crashed into a residential garage and caught fire. Firefighters initially had to use an unusually large amount of water (over 70,000 liters) on the fire, which continued to burn for at least two hours. It was only when they lifted the vehicle to directly extinguish the flaming battery that the temperature dropped sufficiently to safely remove the vehicle from the scene. However, during transportation on a semi-trailer truck, the battery reignited spontaneously. A similar case occurred in Mountain View in the same region, except that the vehicle’s battery caused a delayed fire at the disposal site five days after the accident.

While there is no clear evidence indicating that electric vehicles are more prone to fires compared to conventional vehicles, the associated thermal runaway process in lithium-ion batteries can be delayed or slowed down to the point of being literally imperceptible. In fact, the initial impact and battery damage can trigger a slow but inevitable chain reaction, ultimately leading to unexpected fires after prolonged intervals, particularly in locations such as salvage yards or vehicle storage areas.

Equally important is the risk faced by truck drivers transporting vehicles with damaged lithium-ion batteries. They are exposed to the possibility of sudden and delayed fires, which can easily spread to other vehicles and further complicate the task for firefighters.

Unquenchable Thirst and Prolonged Interventions

Another important issue related to extinguishing fires on vehicles with lithium-ion batteries involves the availability of abnormally large amounts of water and the length of interventions that “trap” personnel in the field longer than usual. Experts point out that in some cases, extinguishing a fire on an electric vehicle may require as much as 110,000 liters of water. This amount may vary, but many fire departments are already unable to rely on using the same amount of water for interventions on electric vehicles as they would for typical building fires.

The Sinking of the Felicity Ace: Did Electric Vehicles Hinder Firefighting Efforts?

It’s not just trucks and logistical infrastructure that are at risk from the specific fire hazards associated with lithium-ion battery vehicles. On March 1, 2022, the cargo ship Felicity Ace sank near the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean, resulting in the loss of approximately 3,965 automobiles. It is estimated that around 300 electric vehicles were found among them which presented an additional challenge in firefighting efforts because suppressing flames on lithium-ion batteries requires the use of large quantities of dry chemicals such as ABC powder, carbon dioxide, powdered graphite, and sodium carbonate. The crew had to abandon the ship as the attempts to extinguish the fire with water alone proved ineffective. At the same time, cargo ships and ferries are particularly susceptible to such fires due to their internal configuration i.e. the lack of internal compartments which facilitates the rapid spread of fire to other vehicles.

Illegal Vehicle Modifications as a Complicating Factor

In the midst of the authentic boom in the use of scooters with lithium-ion batteries, emergency services face a new challenge in the form of illegal activities associated with this trend. An illustrative example is a tragic incident that occurred on January 1, 2023, in a residential block in the British city of Bristol, resulting in the death of one person and the hospitalization of eight others. The investigation revealed that a fire broke out in the hallway of an apartment, with an amateurishly modified e-bike with a lithium battery identified as the cause. Local authorities attributed this to the growing trend of using conversion kits, which allow for retrofitting electric motors onto standard bicycles. These kits often lack proper batteries, tempting consumers to purchase cheaper alternatives and unverified chargers online that do not always adhere to industrial safety standards. Due to the increased likelihood of malfunctions in these non-standard batteries, the risk of fire is significantly heightened.

Underground Garages and Landfills Are at an Increased Risk

The increasing use of lithium-ion batteries in transport vehicles such as e-bikes and e-scooters has caused real concern among safety professionals due to frequent fire incidents caused by these products. Furthermore, as the global transition to zero-emission vehicles gains momentum, there are concerns about the potential risks posed by underground parking lots. These locations are now filled with electric cars and chargers and are not always easily accessible for firefighting operations.

Alarms have been raised in some countries: after a significant increase in the number of fires caused by e-bikes and e-scooters in London (from eight to 59 cases in just two years), the local transport regulator has called for a ban on the use of private e-vehicles on subway and buses.

At the same time, the Environmental Services Association (ESA) warned that these batteries are dangerous even when they are not in active use, as they can be damaged during disposal in landfills or preparation for recycling. This is primarily associated with the risk of lithium-ion batteries being crushed, broken, or exposed to weather conditions, which facilitates self-ignition or explosions.

At the same time, lithium-ion batteries have become prevalent enough in everyday life that users now dispose of them together with regular waste and other recyclable materials, even though they are essentially ticking fire bombs in this state.

Experts emphasize the importance of separate and proper recycling of lithium-ion batteries, along with their safe disposal outside inhabited areas and adequate protection from weather conditions. Damaged batteries are a particular source of risk as they must be disposed of separately and stored in containers filled with sand or other inert materials such as vermiculite.

Data Centers Are Seeking Solutions in the Redesign of Their Facilities

Lithium-ion batteries have been identified as the main suspect in several devastating fires in data centers. One such incident occurred in early 2021 when OVHcloud, a major European cloud service provider, lost one of its centers in Strasbourg due to a fire. It is also believed that the destructive fire at the Maxnod center in France in March was caused by the ignition of a lithium-ion battery. In light of the potential risks associated with lithium-ion batteries in these facilities, experts emphasize the importance of their functional redesign. This primarily involves relocating lithium-ion batteries to dedicated rooms equipped with fire-resistant walls and ceilings. Simultaneously, fire suppression systems using foam would be introduced instead of water-based systems.

The Industry Responds: A Regulatory or Technological Offensive?

At this moment, it seems that government regulators and the industry are competing to find a universal solution to the “inflammatory” issue of lithium-ion batteries. The solution appears to lie in a fusion of both approaches, with pioneering steps being taken by countries with the highest number of users and, consequently, incidents related to these devices. For example, in the United States, there is an initiative underway to pass consumer standards legislation for lithium-ion batteries. The goal is to establish safety standards for batteries in electric scooters and bicycles, including guidelines for consumer protection. Regulators have emphasized the need for global regulation of the distribution of these batteries from different countries, including those from China, which is undoubtedly yet another echo of the ongoing trade war between the US and China.

Unlike regulation, the user education segment has likely made the most progress in fire prevention. Best practices for protection are generally well-known and include avoiding exposing lithium-ion batteries to extreme temperatures and minimizing overnight and continuous charging. Choosing reputable brands and using original charging devices is another important step in mitigating fire risks. During charging, experts believe that it is crucial to ensure adequate air circulation to prevent heat buildup. It is also advisable to keep and charge electric vehicles outside enclosed spaces, ideally in a dedicated isolated area that local authorities should allocate for this purpose.

Government efforts aimed at preventing loss of life and property can also involve enacting standardized storage and handling procedures for lithium-ion batteries, especially during transit on ships or trucks following traffic accidents.

Lastly, the security industry itself has almost unlimited potential to offer solutions for various risks, including new or lesser-known ones. Early detection of unexpected and delayed battery fires can be ensured through 24/7 monitoring of device transportation, aided by thermal scanners, gas detectors, heat and smoke sensors, and CCTV cameras. Additionally, the industry can provide specialized training for personnel involved in battery handling and fire suppression procedures based on previous experiences with such incidents. It is clear to everyone that if we want the technological torch of lithium-ion batteries to continue to illuminate the path ahead, we must take their countless benefits as seriously as the safety of all user groups that want to tread on it.

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