It’s no exaggeration to say lithium-ion batteries power our tech-driven world. They’re common across the tech industry and used in myriad consumer electronic devices today. Since they first emerged in hand-held video cameras the 1990’s, the rechargeable batteries have come to power everything from your iPhone and MacBook, to the electrical systems in jets.
Unfortunately, every so often, lithium-ion batteries combust– violently and suddenly. Since 2011, more than 100 such incidents have been reported to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, according to WJLA.
The exploding smartphone debacle last year that ultimately scuttled Samsung’s flagship Galaxy Note 7 series memorably brought the safety risks posed by lithium-ion batteries into the public eye. And just a little over a month ago, laptop maker HP recalled over 100,000 lithium-ion batteries due to fire and burn hazards. In recent years, lithium-ion battery flaws have caused fires in everything from hoverboards to the electrical systems of two Boeing 787 Dreamliner Jumbo Jets.
It’s a problem compounded by the fact that lithium-ions are ubiquitous. “Lithium-ion batteries are the world’s leading re-chargeable battery type and they power everything from smartphones and tablets to electric cars, drones, construction equipment, space vehicles and robots”, says Michael Mo, CEO of KULR Technologies, a company that develops thermal management solutions for lithium-ion battery thermal runaway issues. “There are literally billions of them in use today and tens of millions more being made every year. Chances are, if you plug it in to charge, it’s a lithium ion battery.”
Why Do Lithium-Ion Batteries Catch Fire?
Unfortunately, the same chemical properties that make lithium-ion batteries such great power storage solutions also make them prone to catch fire. To understand the issue, it’s helpful to know a bit about how they work.
Lithium-ion batteries contain an anode, cathode, and lithium– a highly volatile substance. The anode and cathode are negatively and positively charged electrodes, respectively, that are kept apart by a porous material called the separator.
When you’re using your battery, lithium ions travel from the anode to the cathode through the separator. When you’re charging it, the lithium ions travel back over to the anode. If the separator is breached and the two electrodes touch, it can trigger a chemical chain reaction that releases heat known as “thermal runaway”, causing accidents like fires and explosions. That was one of the key issues that caused the Galaxy Note 7 to burst into flame.
Other common causes of thermal runaway are problems with the charging process that cause the batteries to charge too much or too quickly. While devices typically have software that regulates how much and how quickly batteries are charged, if the protocol is flawed, it can destabilize the battery, causing short circuits and leading to thermal runaway.
Unfortunately, something as simple as overheating from a hot day or dropping your phone can lead to battery deterioration and thermal runaway.
Li-ion Battery Risks
It’s the responsibility of manufacturers to ensure that this doesn’t happen, of course, and lithium-ion batteries are subject to federal regulation, which is why they don’t explode more often.
Yet while the odds of any given lithium-ion battery exploding is very slim, the fact that there are billions of them in use throughout the world makes those fires highly likely. “It’s rare – maybe just one in ten or twenty million – but with billions of [lithium-ion batteries], those fires and explosions are going to happen”, Mo says to iDrop News.
Add to this the fact that manufacturers also have an incentive to push the technology to the brink– packing more features into ever-slimmer devices without sacrificing battery life, as in the case of the Galaxy Note 7– and the risk becomes even more apparent. Separators have gotten thinner in recent years, along with the devices housing them.
Li-ion Battery Dos and Donts
For the time being, short of a revolutionary new battery, we’re stuck with lithium-ion batteries. And if the batteries suffer from a manufacturing defect, there are a few things we can do to help avoid mishaps.
To minimize risk, you should be careful not treat your smartphones too roughly or drop them often, which goes without saying. You should also be careful if your phone gets hotter than normal and take precautions to make sure it doesn’t overheat by keeping it ventilated– particularly when charging.
“Consumers should monitor their devices and take note when something gets hot while charging or does not charge — that could be a sign of battery damage”, Mo advises. “They should also charge electronics on flat, hard surfaces that offer ventilation and are less likely to catch fire in case of a problem. They should also pay attention to product and battery recall notices.”