The Human Touch: Lithium-Ion Battery Safety Largely Depends on Human Interaction

Proper human interaction with Li-ion batteries is key to preventing potentially catastrophic incidents. © Chadchai – stock.adobe.com

Consumer knowledge can make the greatest and most immediate impact in eliminating Li-ion battery incidents.

By: Corey Hannahs, Contributor

Like it or not, lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are all around us. Cellphones, tablets, laptops, cameras, e-cigarettes, e-bikes, battery powered tools, and electric vehicles are just a fraction of the products available to us today that take advantage of the significant amount of power, in a rather small footprint, that lithium-ion batteries provide. Although some may not know all of the products they utilize that contain Li-ion batteries, the fact that they do exist is shared quite often with us through different media outlets often involving a battery related fire.

In many of those cases, it is portrayed that the battery itself is the problem, which it could very well be. We have product recalls on all kinds of things that we use every day, based on something that went wrong during manufacturing, so why should we expect Li-ion batteries to be any different?  However, the details of these incidents likely matter more than the fact that it happened to involve a Li-ion battery and those aren’t always immediately available for the media to report on. The reality is that it is likely human interaction with Li-ion batteries that is leading to many of these tragic incidents. We as humans need to learn more about how to safely interact with Li-ion batteries to help mitigate the risk to ourselves and society as a whole.

LI-ION TECHNOLOGY

Li-ion technology is not a new thing. Basic research around the chemical makeup began in the 1960’s. It took another three decades until Sony and Asahi Kasei made the initial commercial sales of the first rechargeable Li-ion batteries. From that point on, the technology continued to grow, with many patents being filed and, as a result, more and more products began to implement Li-ion batteries.

At a high-level, Li-ion batteries are made up of an anode, a cathode, and a thin plastic separator (0.0005 – 0.001 inches thick) between the two. Problems begin to happen with Li-ion batteries when the separator becomes compromised and the anode and cathode short circuit, generating heat which can result in the production of toxic and flammable gases. Sometimes separators are penetrated by the natural forming of dendrites (picture pointed stalactites growing down from the ceiling of a cave) within the Li-ion battery.

Separators can also become breached due to human interaction, such as dropping a product containing a Li-ion battery to the point that it is damaged enough to rupture the separator. Physical abuse is just one example of many, where human interaction can trigger a significant Li-ion battery event. There are several other areas that we should all be conscientious about when interacting with Li-ion batteries.

LISTED PRODUCTS

As mentioned, there are a wide array of consumer products on the market that contain Li-ion batteries. A crucial starting point for a consumer is ensuring that the product being purchased is listed by a Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) Accepted Testing Laboratory (ATL). A full list of ATLs can be found on the CPSC website.1 Although side-by-side a product may appear to be similar, there is a lot of work behind the scenes that makes a difference, with proper testing being the most critical to developing a safe product.

There are all kinds of Li-ion related products available for purchase both online and in stores. It is important to know that the cheapest is not always the best, as cheaper products may not go through the rigorous testing process for safety. Once a product is determined to be properly listed and a purchase is made, it is important that consumers closely follow the manufacturer’s instructions as those instructions tie directly to the product listing.

SAFE CHARGING

There are a couple key things to think about when it comes to safe charging of your Li-ion battery powered products. The first is that the charging device that came with the product is what should be utilized and the manufacturers rules, such as time limits, for charging should be closely followed. This equipment is specific to that product and has been utilized as part of the listing process for the product.

If the charging devices breaks or becomes defective, consumers should consult the product manufacturer on how to attain a replacement. The same process of consulting the manufacturer should take place if the batteries themselves become defective and need replacement. Buying replacement batteries online as part of a do-it-yourself thought process can lead to serious safety risks.

The second point to safe charging is that where you charge can be just as important as how you charge. Any device that contains a Li-ion battery, such as a phone, tablet, or laptop, should be charged in a location with adequate ventilation to disperse the heat generated from charging and never be charged in a bed or under a pillow. If the device were ever to overheat and a fire were to start, there would be little time to escape before a bed became fully engulfed in a fire.

Products like eBikes and eScooters should never be charged in a path of egress out of a home. There have been a significant number of fires caused by eBikes in high-rise apartment buildings in New York City where the eBike was being charged in the path of egress and left no way for people to escape the blaze. Larger products that contain Li-ion batteries, like eBikes, should always be charged in a safe area where the path of egress out of the home can be maintained in case of emergency.

OVERHEATING AND SAFE DISPOSAL

Along the same lines of picking a safe place to charge Li-ion powered products is also picking a safe place to store them or sit them down. Areas that have a large amount of heat are not good places for storage. Exposure to extreme heat has the ability to melt the very thin separator in the battery which can result in a short circuit. As an example, many people utilize portable chargers that contain Li-ion batteries in order to recharge their devices freely without access to electricity.

If you were planning for a long day at the beach, throwing the charger in a beach bag full of towels and then sitting the bag out in the sun all day would create a high risk for a Li-ion related battery fire. Likewise, leaving your phone on the dashboard of your car on a hot summer day is a recipe for disaster. And it probably goes without saying but if your phone was to catch on fire in your car, don’t just keep driving – safely park your car and get out immediately.2

Consumers also need to be conscientious of how they dispose of products that contain Li-ion batteries. They should never be thrown out in the normal trash pickup. Doing so not only puts the vehicle operator at risk but also the entire staff at the collection center, should the battery eventually catch on fire there and ignite all of the surrounding, highly combustible materials. Many big box stores offer a means to dispose of smaller products that contain Li-ion batteries. Another solution is reaching out to your waste management company to determine if they offer an alternate procedure for disposal of these products.

CONCLUSION

Because Li-ion batteries have become embedded in our culture and show no signs of leaving, it is important that we learn more about how to safely interact with them. Proper human interaction with Li-ion batteries is key to preventing potentially catastrophic incidents. If you have made it this far into the article, I hope you have found at least one piece of valuable information on how to mitigate your own personal risk.

Please share what you have learned with others as well so they can be informed and begin to alleviate their own risk. Another great resource for knowledge around Li-ion battery safety is the Electrical Safety Foundation, who have chosen to highlight it as the topic for this year’s National Electrical Safety Month campaign.3

My personal belief is that growth in consumer knowledge can make the greatest and most immediate impact in eliminating the Li-ion battery incidents that we are seeing around the world.  The sooner we can all learn to safely interact with Li-ion batteries, the safer that society will be as a whole.

For more information on how you can interact safely with lithium-ion batteries, please visit the NFPA website at https://www.nfpa.org/lithiumionsafety

References:

1 https://bit.ly/3UrVMnh   

2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WZvCV_Eom8s

3 https://www.esfi.org/national-electrical-safety-month-2024

Corey Hannahs is a Senior Electrical Content Specialist at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). In his current role, he serves as an electrical subject matter expert in the development of products and services that support NFPA documents and stakeholders. Corey is a third-generation electrician, holding licenses as a master electrician, contractor, inspector, and plan reviewer in the state of Michigan. Having held roles as an installer, owner, and executive previously, he has also provided electrical apprenticeship instruction for over 15 years. Corey was twice appointed to the State of Michigan’s Electrical Administrative Board by former Governor Rick Snyder, and he received United States Special Congressional Recognition for founding the B.O.P. (Building Opportunities for People) Program, which teaches construction skills to homeless and underprivileged individuals.

Important Notice: Any opinion expressed in this column is the personal opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the official position of NFPA or its Technical Committees. In addition, this piece is neither intended, nor should it be relied upon, to provide professional consultation or services.

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