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  • Writer's pictureJohn Davis

How Do You Put Out A Lithium Battery Fire?

3.7 volt lithium ion batteries on a wooden background

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 Ion Batteries Are A Fire Hazard

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:

Why Do Lithium Batteries Catch Fire?

  • 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.

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