Why Lithium Batteries Catch Fire and What to Do
17 lithium-ion batteries exploded on airplanes in the first six months of 2017. Hewlett-Packard recalled 50,000 lithium-ion batteries due to fire danger. Portland recycling center ecomaine fought two lithium-ion based fires in two weeks, the second taking 40 minutes to extinguish. Australia is considering legislation restricting installation of lithium-ion storage batteries in homes, labeling them fire hazards. Despite standards, regulations, and ongoing development to improve the safety of lithium-ion batteries, they continue to cause trouble. Here’s why lithium batteries catch fire and what to do if you’re faced with an unexpected hazard.
Lithium Batteries – Lightweight and Efficient, But….
Since 1991, lithium-ion batteries have been the standard for power across industries from cell phones and computers to electric vehicles and solar storage. Lithium batteries have been problematic because they:
are made from a combustible material
can pack a lot of power compared to other batteries. But as part of the alkali metal group on the periodic table, lithium is very combustible. It’s also the least dense metallic element.
Have highly reactive components
Are structured like all batteries – two electrodes are separated by an electrolyte. In the lithium battery, the electrolyte is a solution of reactive lithium salts and organic solvents. An electrical charge is transferred from a lithium metal cathode through the electrolyte to a carbon anode. And as with most batteries, the process pressurizes the contents.
Are volatile when damaged
Have stray ions moving between the electrodes that can create microfibers called dendrites. If a dendrite punctures the thin separators keeping the battery elements separate, an internal short-circuit can spark the lithium. And if a dendrite punctures the external part of the battery, the lithium reacts with water in the air, generating heat and the possibility of fire. The battery can also overheat, creating a thermal runaway and causing an explosion.
Unfortunately, if something goes wrong with lithium batteries, fire is a likely result.
What to do if Lithium Batteries Catch Fire
Battery University offers these guidelines for dealing with a lithium battery fire:
Small lithium-ion batteries can be doused with water because they contain little lithium metal. Lithium-metal battery fires can be put out with a Class D fire extinguisher.
Larger battery fires are best handled with a foam extinguisher, CO2, ABC dry chemical, powder graphite, copper powder or sodium carbonate.
If the fire can’t be extinguished, you’ll need to let it burn in a controlled way, dousing the surrounding area with water to prevent the fire from spreading.
If you have a battery pack, each cell may burn on a different timetable when hot, so place the pack outside until completely burned out.
You have a safer choice for home and commercial power storage — redox flow batteries. Leading the industry are vanadium options made with a non-flammable electrolyte solution.
StorEn Tech is committed to safe, reliable long-lasting energy storage. Invest in the future of solar-charged batteries today.