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.