Learn what causes Li-ion to fail and what to do in case of fire.
Safety of lithium-based batteries has attracted much media and legal attention. Any energy storage device carries a risk and this already occurred in the 1800s when steam engines exploded and people got hurt. Carrying highly flammable gasoline in cars was a hot topic in the early 1900s. Battery makers are obligated to meet safety requirements, but there are shortcuts by less reputable firms and it’s “buyer beware!”
Lithium-ion is safe but with millions of consumers using batteries, failures are bound to happen. In 2006, a one-in-200,000 breakdown triggered a recall of almost six million lithium-ion packs. Sony, the maker of the lithium-ion cells in question, points out that on the rare occasion microscopic metal particles may come into contact with other parts of the battery cell, leading to a short circuit within the cell.
Battery manufacturers strive to minimize the presence of such particles; however, complex assembly techniques make the elimination of all metallic dust a challenge. Cells with ultra-thin separators of 24µm or less (24-thousandth of an mm) are more susceptible to impurities than the older designs with lower Ah ratings. Whereas the 1,350mAh cell in the 18650 package could tolerate the nail penetration test, the high-density 3,400mAh can ignite when performing the same test. (See BU-306: What is the Function of the Separator?) New safety standards are more relevant to how batteries are used and the UL1642 Underwriters Laboratories (UL) test no longer mandates nail penetration for safety acceptance of lithium-based batteries.
Li-ion using conventional metal oxides is nearing its theoretical limit on specific energy. Rather than optimizing capacity, battery makers are improving manufacturing methods to enhance safety and increase the calendar life. The real problem lies when in rare occasions an electrical short develops inside the cell. The external protection peripherals in such a case are ineffective to stop the thermal runaway when in progress. The batteries recalled in 2006 had passed the UL safety requirements – yet they failed under normal use.
There are two basic types of battery failures. One occurs at a predictable interval-per-million and is connected with a design flaw involving the electrode, separator, and electrolyte and/or manufacturing processes. These defects often involve a recall to correct a discovered flaw. The more difficult failures are random events that do not point to a design defect. It may be a fluke incident that is comparable of being hit by a meteor.
Let’s examine the inner workings of the cell closer. A mild short will only cause elevated self-discharge and the heat buildup is minimal because the discharging power is very low. If enough microscopic metallic particles converge on one spot, a sizable current begins to flow between the electrodes of the cell and the spot heats up and weakens. As a small water leak in a faulty hydro dam can develop to a torrent and take a structure down, so also can heat buildup damage the insulation layer in a cell and cause an electrical short. The temperature can quickly reach 500C (932F), at which point the cell catches fire or it explodes. This thermal runaway that occurs is known as “venting with flame.” “Rapid disassembly” is the preferred term by the battery industry.
Uneven separators can also trigger cell failure. Poor conductivity due to dry area increases the resistance, which can generate local heat spots that weaken the integrity of the separator. Heat is always an enemy of the battery.
If a Li-ion battery overheats, hisses, or bulges, immediately move the device away from flammable materials and place it to a non-combustible surface. If at all possible, remove the battery and put it outdoors to burn out.
A Li-ion fire can be handled like any other combustible fire and for best result use a foam extinguisher, CO2, ABC dry chemical, powdered graphite, copper powder or soda (sodium carbonate).
If the fire occurs in an airplane, the FAA instructs flight attendants to use water or pop soda. Water-based products are most readily available and are appropriate since Li-ion contains very little lithium metal that reacts with water. Water also cools the adjacent area and prevents the fire from spreading. Research laboratories and factories also use water to extinguish Li-ion battery fires.
When encountering a fire with a lithium-metal battery, only use a Class D extinguisher as water reacts with the lithium metal and makes the fire worse. With all battery fires, allow ample of ventilation while the battery burns itself out.
During a thermal runaway, the high heat of the failing cell may propagate to the next cells, causing them to become thermally unstable also. A chain reaction can occur in which each cell disintegrates on its own timetable. A pack can thus be destroyed in a few seconds or over several hours as each cell is being consumed. To increase safety, packs should include dividers to protect the failing cell from spreading to the neighboring one. Figure 1 shows a laptop that was damaged by a faulty Li-ion battery.
Figure 1: Suspected Li-ion battery destroys laptop
The owner says the laptop popped, hissed, sizzled and began filling the room with smoke.
Courtesy of Shmuel De-Leon
When pressure builds up, the gas released by the venting process of a Li-ion cell is mainly carbon dioxide (CO2). Other gases that form through heating are vaporized electrolyte consisting of ethylene and/or propylene. Burning gases also include combustion products of organic solvents.
While lithium-based batteries are heavily studied for safety, nickel- and lead-based batteries also cause fires and are being recalled. The reasons are faulty separators resulting from aging, rough handling, excessive vibration and high-temperature. Lithium-ion batteries have become very safe and heat-related failures occur rarely when used correctly.
Simple Guidelines for Using Lithium-ion Batteries
Last Updated 2015-09-16
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