Lithium-ion batteries are widely used in a lot of consumer items. This technology is growing in popularity due to its light weight, high energy density, and ability to recharge quickly and with no memory effect. In Australia, lithium-ion batteries are commonly found in rechargeable electrical devices such as: -

•   Cordless power tools
•   Cell phones, laptops and smart devices
•   e-Rideables/LEV 's e.g., electric scooters, electric skateboards, hoverboards etc
•   Electric vehicles (EV's) or Hybrid vehicles
•   Electric Forklifts
•   e-Cigarettes
•   Camping and gardening equipment
•   Cordless appliances
•   Toys
•   Battery Energy Storage Systems (BESS)

Lithium-ion batteries make life easier, but their complex chemical-nature make them dangerous if used, charged or stored incorrectly. Lithium-ion battery related fires and explosions can cause property damage, serious injury and even death. As rechargeable batteries have become more common the number of incidents has increased dramatically.

Lithium-ion fires in Australia
In Australia, more than 450 fires have been linked to lithium-ion batteries over the past 18 months, according to data provided by state fire departments with a significant spike in e-scooter fires. 

•   WA recorded 81 of these incidents 2022
•   NSW recorded 180 lithium-ion battery related fires in the past 12 months
•   VIC recorded 120 in the year to July 2022
•   QLD recorded 72 since 2021

These fires can be triggered by overcharging, overheating or exposure to extreme temperatures, short-circuiting, defective or ageing battery cell. Ensuring that you source your products from a reputable seller/manufacturer is an important step as cheap products carry risk. 

Thermal Runaway
When lithium-ion batteries fail, they can undergo a thermal runaway phenomenon which involves a violent bursting of one or multiple battery cells.  Thermal runaway occurs when a lithium-ion cell enters a state of uncontrolled self-heating. This often begins when the heat generated within a cell exceeds the heat dissipated to its surroundings. This results in the release of toxic, corrosive, flammable, and explosive vapours and gases resulting in an intense fire. The fire is self-sustaining and is especially difficult to extinguish using conventional methods or fire extinguishers.  Pouring water on a lithium fire is often very dangerous and counterproductive.

When you’re carrying many lithium-ion batteries in your workplace, the risks associated with thermal runaway increases. If thermal runaway occurs in a single battery, it will overheat the cell and quickly create a domino effect with the other batteries kept close by. As the battery cells continue to overheat and ignite, the fire will continue to grow in intensity.  To manage this risk, look at storing your Lithium-Ion batteries in a safety storage cabinet. These cabinets are usually fire rated for up to 90 minutes both from internally and externally.

High Temperatures Reached
The rapid thermal energy generation during an internal short circuit is typically the tipping point after which thermal runaway occurs. Internal cell temperatures will continue to rise and can quickly reach 500°C at which point the cell catches fire or it explodes. Lithium-ion batteries can also spontaneously combust when exposed to high thermal temperature. Here is an example of one, Dangerous-power-tool-explodes by Australasian Mine Safety Journal

Gases Produced
What usually looks like ordinary smoke is in actual fact toxic, flammable, and explosive vapours. A lithium-ion battery upon contact with water produces hydrogen gas and lithium-hydroxide. Overexposure to Lithium-hydroxide can cause skin irritation or eye damage. Because lithium reacts with water creating a flammable gas, pouring water on a lithium fire is extremely dangerous. A leaking lithium-ion battery when exposed to air or moisture can even produce hydrofluoric acid, which is highly toxic, and can severely irritate the eyes and lungs.

Steps to safely manage lithium-ion batteries products to minimise the risk:

  • Do not charge them when you're out.
  • Do not charge them while you’re asleep.
  • Do not charge them indoors or around items that are combustible.
  • Do not charge them near your exit path where it is likely to impede your egress out of a building.
  • Do not charge a damaged product.
  • Unplug them once charged.
  • Take care to avoid damaging items i.e., dropping, crushing etc.
  • Do not leave or charge them in hot environment or direct sunlight.
  • Using the certified or original battery chargers.
  • Avoid charging damaged batteries.
  • Avoid thermal stress.

Batteries that show any signs of damage should be disposed of carefully. Never throw them in your regular waste or recycling containers. Fires are known to occur in garbage trucks and in waste facilities due to improper disposal of batteries. Even when dead, they can explode or cause fires when crushed or when exposed to moisture. Research online for local battery recyclers.  Below is an image of garbage bin fire, a result of a disposed cell phone.  

Plastic Bin Fire

Damaged batteries a include:
•   Batteries and/or devices that have been involved in or exposed to fire
•   Overheated batteries that may have been emitting vapours or smoke
•   Batteries that show signs of swelling or bulging, leaking, cracks, dents, punctures, or crushing
•   Batteries that have had water or liquid ingress or have been submerged in water.

What to do if confronted by a Lithium-Ion fire emergency
•   If there is sign of overheating, switch off the charger if it's safe to do so.
•   If there is sign of fire, remove yourself from the area to avoid the risk of fire and toxic vapours from the battery.
•   Raise the fire alarm.
•   Isolate the power supply if safe to do so.
•   Use a suitable fire extinguisher i.e. F-500 EA if available.
•   Other extinguishers may not be effective as the excessive heat from a lithium-ion battery in a
     thermal runaway state could cause reignition.
•   If save to do so, remove combustibles stored nearby.
•   Call triple (000) and request the fire service.

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