Lithium batteries are found in everything from cell phones and cordless drills to electric vehicles. Their popular use is due to this battery’s high-power capacity in a relatively small package.
There are several different types of lithium batteries, some rechargeable and some non-rechargeable, both of which are generally safe and unlikely to fail; but only so long as there are no defects or damage.
When lithium batteries fail to operate safely or are damaged, they may present a fire or explosion hazard. Damage can occur immediately or over a period of time, caused by …
- Improper use, storage, or charging.
- Physical impacts - dropping, crushing, or puncturing.
- Exposure to extreme temperatures.
Too high (above 130°F); open flames, continuous direct sun exposure, heaters, etc.
Too low (below freezing, 32°F) during charging.
All of the above results in cell failure, releasing intense heat and damaging other nearby cells causing a chain reaction known as a thermal runaway. The high energy density in lithium batteries makes them more susceptible to these reactions. Lithium cell failures can result in chemical and/or combustion reactions, which can result in heat releases and/or over-pressurization quickly leading to acid exposure, smoke, fire, or explosion.
Lithium battery fires are extremely difficult to extinguish. Fire extinguishers may only temporarily knock the flames down and large amounts of water are often ineffective. Lithium fires usually re-ignite and have to burn-out before no longer a threat. Therefore, isolating the burning object from other material is often the only way to prevent the spread of a lithium battery fire.
The reality of lithium battery incidents makes prevention steps that much more important:
- Ensure lithium batteries, chargers, and associated equipment are a high-quality product (recognized by national testing standards; ex. UL).
- Store, use, and maintain by that particular manufacturer's recommendations.
- When replacing lithium batteries, ensure they are specifically designed for and match that device.
- Remove lithium-powered devices and batteries from the charger once they are fully charged.
- Store lithium batteries and devices in dry, cool locations.
- Clean batteries with a clean, slightly damp cloth; do not use solvents.
- Avoid damaging lithium batteries and devices.
- Inspect them for signs of damage, such as bulging/cracking or rising temperature.
- If they are damaged, leaking, or smoking, remove them from service and isolate them from everything else. For example, smaller batteries can be placed outside in a fire-resistant container (e.g., metal drum).