In an age where nearly everything is powered by batteries, lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) have become ubiquitous. They power smartphones, laptops, electric vehicles (EVs), and even some of our home appliances. However, with their increasing use, concerns about their safety have also grown. This article explores the potential dangers of lithium batteries and the steps being taken to mitigate these risks.
The Power and Promise of Lithium Batteries
Lithium batteries offer high energy density, long cycle life, and relative environmental friendliness compared to other types of batteries. These attributes have made them the go-to power source for numerous consumer and industrial applications. Despite these benefits, there are inherent risks associated with lithium batteries, chiefly their tendency to overheat, which can lead to a phenomenon known as “thermal runaway.”
Thermal runaway is a process where an increase in temperature can damage nearby cells, releasing more heat in a chain reaction, often leading to a destructive result. In lithium batteries, this can occur if the battery is overcharged, short-circuited, physically damaged, or exposed to extreme temperatures.
During thermal runaway, the battery’s internal temperature rises rapidly, leading to the breakdown of the battery materials. This process can cause the battery to swell, leak, catch fire, or even explode, releasing toxic fumes. The occurrence of such incidents in consumer electronics and electric vehicles has led to injuries, product recalls, and reputational damage for companies.
OSHA has issued recommendations about how to prevent damage to lithium batteries:
- Ensure lithium batteries, chargers, and associated equipment are tested in accordance with an appropriate test standard (e.g., UL 2054) and, where applicable, certified by a Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory (NRTL), and are rated for their intended uses.
- Follow manufacturer’s instructions for storage, use, charging, and maintenance.
- When replacing batteries and chargers for an electronic device, ensure they are specifically designed and approved for use with the device and they are purchased from the device’s manufacturer or a manufacturer authorized reseller.
- Remove lithium-powered devices and batteries from the charger once they are fully charged.
- Store lithium batteries and devices in dry, cool locations.
- Avoid damaging lithium batteries and devices. Inspect them for signs of damage, such as bulging/cracking, hissing, leaking, rising temperature, and smoking before use, especially if they are wearable. Immediately remove a device or battery from service and place it in an area away from flammable materials if any of these signs are present.
- If batteries are damaged, remove them from service, place in fire resistant container (e.g., metal drum) with sand or other extinguishing agent, and dispose in accordance with local, state, and federal regulations. Contact a local battery recycling center for disposal instructions.
- Follow manufacturer’s guidance on how to extinguish small battery fires, which could include using ABC dry chemical extinguishers, Class D fire extinguishers (for lithium-metal), dirt, or sand.
High-profile Incidents and Recalls
One of the most notable examples of lithium battery hazards was the 2016 Samsung Galaxy Note 7 recall, where a design flaw led to numerous cases of the device’s battery catching fire. The fallout led to a complete recall of the model, costing Samsung billions of dollars.
Electric vehicles, powered by large lithium-ion battery packs, have also come under scrutiny after incidents of EVs catching fire. In 2020, General Motors recalled over 110,000 Chevrolet Bolt EVs due to the risk of battery fires.
Lithium Battery Disposal Dangers
Battery disposal and recycling are other important safety considerations. Incorrect disposal of lithium batteries can lead to environmental pollution and safety hazards. Recycling initiatives are increasing, but more progress is needed to ensure all spent lithium batteries are handled safely.
While lithium batteries have revolutionized our lives, they come with inherent risks that must be understood and mitigated. The electronics and automotive industries, among others, are investing heavily in making these batteries safer and more efficient. With ongoing advancements in technology, the future of lithium-ion batteries appears promising, albeit challenging, as researchers seek to enhance their performance while ensuring their safety.
Spagnoletti Law Firm is experienced in product liability cases. The experienced attorneys at Spagnoletti Law Firm can help you understand your rights if you or a loved one was a victim of a Lithium Battery explosion. Please contact us online or call 713-804-9306 or 877-678-5864 to learn more about your legal rights.