Batteries are all around us and in many of the electronics we use on a daily basis.
Alkaline batteries power our remotes and fire extinguishers, while lithium ion batteries are in everything from phones and laptops to cars and planes. As the demand for more batteries – and more powerful batteries – grows, there has been a troubling increase in the number of battery fires reported. Since 2002 there have been over 40 recalls of lithium ion batteries alone due to fire and explosion hazards.
Why Battery Fires are Dangerous
Battery fires are particularly dangerous because they’re essentially a chemical fire, electrical fire, and metal fire all in one. Lithium-Ion batteries burn up to 1000 degrees Fahrenheit and can explode, spraying the area with burning metal and chemicals. Many battery fires are self-sufficient – they don’t even need oxygen to keep burning because everything needed to feed the flame is in the battery. So now that we know how bad a battery fire can be, let’s look at why they happen and how to prevent them.
The key components in a lithium-ion battery are the negative and positive electrodes that move lithium ions in and out of their interiors. These two electrodes are separated by an electrolyte made of lithium salts that separates them from each other. Small defects in manufacturing or damage to the separators can cause internal short circuits and a process called thermal runaway.
Thermal runaway is a chemical process where the heat from a battery causes internal failures that in turn generates more heat that causes more internal failure. This cycle repeats until the heat is so great the battery components can catch fire and explode.
How to Prevent Battery Fires
Fortunately, there are several simple ways to significantly reduce the chances of battery fires. First, lithium-ion batteries should only be purchased from the product in question’s manufacturer, or a manufacturer-approved source. Cheap or counterfeit batteries are often cited in cases where phones and laptops have caught fire or exploded.
Keep batteries away from places where they may be exposed to extra heat, like air ducts, cooking surfaces, sun-facing windows, or radiators. Proper ventilation is also important. Electronics left under blankets or piles of clothing are susceptible to overheating, which in turn could lead to a battery fire.
There are a number of ways a battery can be damaged that increases the possibility of fire: dropping a battery on a hard surface, subjecting it to a large amount of weight, or bending can damage its internal circuitry. Even if a device that has been submerged in water still works, the battery could still slowly corrode and become a safety hazard.
When storing batteries, make sure they cannot come into contact with other metal objects like keys, jewelry, or coins. These can cross the electrical connection and cause a reaction. Use electrical tape to cover the electrodes.
In case of a battery fire, remember that smothering may not work as a battery fire already has the oxygen it needs to burn. Many experts also believe you should not try to fight them with water. The recommended method of putting out a battery fire is with a Class D fire extinguisher, which is specifically made to handle metal fires.
Following these tips will help lower the chances that a battery in your workplace starts a fire. Unfortunately, manufacturing defects are often the main driver of these kinds of incidents. Don’t sacrifice safety by using cheap batteries in your electronics, take action if a recall is issued for products you own, and better yet protect yourself and your workers against their clothing igniting with FR garments.