What Causes Lithium-ion Battery Fires?




What causes Lithium-Ion Battery Fires?
Where there's a Spark, there's a Flame


 Image supplied by SafeQuip



Behind the convenience of lithium-ion batteries lies a potentially hazardous science. SafeQuip, a leading distributor of fire-related equipment, delve into the construction of lithium-ion batteries, the phenomenon of thermal runaway, and potential hazards associated with these power sources.


Understanding Lithium-Ion Battery Construction

At their core, lithium-ion batteries consist of three essential components:


  1. Anode: This is the negative electrode, typically made of a carbon-based material that stores lithium-ions when the battery is charged.
  2. Cathode: The positive electrode, often composed of lithium cobalt oxide or other lithium-based compounds, is responsible for receiving and releasing lithium-ions during charging and discharging.
  3. Electrolyte: This is like the battery's bloodstream. It's a liquid or gel that helps lithium-ions move around between the cathode and anode. It’s important to note that the liquid or gel is flammable.


These three elements are sandwiched together and housed within a protective casing. The casing serves as a barrier to contain the potentially volatile materials inside the battery.


The Phenomenon of Thermal Runaway

Thermal runaway in lithium-ion batteries is a dangerous situation where the battery gets extremely hot, leading to the rapid release of heat and gases, which can result in fires or explosions. Several factors can trigger thermal runaway, including:


  • Overcharging: Charging a lithium-ion battery beyond its recommended voltage limits can cause the electrolyte to break down, leading to overheating.
  • Physical Damage: Punctures, crushing, or mechanical stress can compromise the battery's structure, allowing internal components to come into contact and generate heat.
  • High Temperatures: Exposure to excessive heat, such as leaving a device in a hot car, can accelerate the onset of thermal runaway.
  • Manufacturing Defects: Faulty manufacturing processes or substandard materials can weaken the battery's internal components, increasing the risk of thermal runaway.


Potential Hazards from Lithium-Ion Batteries

Potential hazards associated with lithium-ion batteries include:


  1. Fire: When a lithium-ion battery undergoes thermal runaway, it can generate enough heat to ignite the internal materials or surrounding objects. This can lead to a fire, posing a significant safety risk.
  2. Explosion: In extreme cases, the buildup of pressure from the gases produced during thermal runaway can rupture the battery casing, resulting in an explosion. While such incidents are rare, they can cause severe injuries or property damage.
  3. Toxic Gas Emission: Lithium-ion batteries may emit toxic gases, such as hydrogen fluoride and phosphorus pentafluoride when they overheat or explode. Inhalation of these gases can be harmful to human health.


Mitigating the Risks

Here are some practical steps to help you stay safe:


  • Use Genuine Batteries: Always use genuine, manufacturer-recommended batteries and chargers for your devices. Counterfeit or substandard products are more likely to pose risks.
  • Avoid Extreme Temperatures: Keep your devices and batteries away from extreme temperatures, both hot and cold. Avoid leaving them in direct sunlight or inside a hot vehicle.
  • Inspect for Damage: Regularly inspect your devices and batteries for any signs of physical damage, such as swelling, punctures, or leaks. If you notice any issues, replace the battery or device as needed.
  • Charge Safely: Charge your devices on non-flammable surfaces, away from combustible materials. Do not leave them unattended while charging, especially overnight.
  • Store Properly: If you need to store lithium-ion batteries for an extended period, keep them in a cool, dry place with a partial charge (around 50%). Avoid storing them fully charged or fully depleted.
  • Dispose of Old Batteries: When it's time to replace a lithium-ion battery, recycle it properly.
  • Invest in a Lith-Ex Fire Extinguisher: Lith-Ex Fire Extinguishers contain AVD – a naturally occurring agent specifically designed for lithium-ion battery fires. AVD is made from the naturally occurring mineral vermiculite combined with water. It is a very effective agent that, cools, encapsulate, prevent propagation, and extinguishes lithium-ion battery fires.


SafeQuip remains dedicated to elevating fire safety standards in South Africa and worldwide, ensuring the effective mitigation of lithium-ion battery fire risks. SafeQuip’s lithium-ion fire extinguisher range will soon be accessible through retailers like Makro, Game, MIDAS, Matus, select Buco and Buildit outlets, Takealot, and your local fire extinguishing service agents.


About SafeQuip


SafeQuip (Pty) Ltd, an SABS-approved manufacturer and wholesale distributor, is a leading name in firefighting equipment across Africa. Our roots trace back to H.I. Lay Sales in 1986, which later merged with Blue Crane Engineering to form SafeQuip in 2008. Committed to service excellence, quality, and competitive pricing, we offer a comprehensive range of firefighting equipment. With headquarters in Cape Town and branches across South Africa, we serve central and southern Africa and the Indian Ocean islands. Part of the Rovic International Group, SafeQuip contributes strategic value to a diversified portfolio, including agricultural equipment, trailer components, and irrigation technology. Our product range includes trusted local brands like Firemate, Blue Crane, Victaulic and AWG.

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