As our portable electronic devices continue to get thinner and lighter, manufacturers have had to figure out ways to store a lot of energy in a small package. And advancements in lithium batteries have allowed them to do just that.
But as use of lithium batteries has become widespread in devices like laptops and smartphones, we’ve also seen an increase in battery fires. According to a 2018 report from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 25,000 overheating or fire incidents have been reported over a five-year period — involving more than 400 types of lithium battery powered products.
If you’ve flown on an airplane or shipped a package recently, you’ve probably seen warnings related to the dangers of lithium battery fires. But how do these fires start? And more importantly, what can you do to prevent them?
Here’s what you need to know.
Why do lithium batteries catch fire?
Every type of battery creates electricity by turning chemical energy into electrical energy. It does this by using chemical reactions to create a flow of electrons from one material to another. We’ll spare you the rest of the science lesson. The important thing to know is that the materials used (lead-acid, alkaline, nickel-cadmium, etc.) all have different charging properties.
Lithium batteries use — you got it — lithium in metal or ion (Li-ion) form as their anode material. And they come with several advantages. Lithium-ion batteries are easily rechargeable and have the highest energy density of any battery technology, meaning they pack more power into a smaller space. They also can deliver a voltage up to three times higher than other battery types.
But generating all that electricity also creates heat, which can lead to battery fires — or even explosions. This is especially true when a battery is damaged or defective, and uncontrolled chemical reactions (also called thermal runaway) are allowed to occur.
What types of devices have lithium batteries?
Lithium batteries are used in almost all modern portable electronic devices. The list includes smartphones, laptops, tablets, eReaders, smart watches and Bluetooth headphones. Larger lithium batteries are also used to power things like electric scooters, hoverboards, ebikes and even electric cars.
How do I know if a lithium battery is damaged?
If you have concerns about one of your devices, you can check the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recalls website. This government regulatory organization oversees product safety and lists active recalls on their website. Enter “lithium” in the search bar to see a list of products organized by specific brands and manufacturers. Often, there are dozens of products in active recall status, such as laptops and kids’ toys.
Before a failing lithium battery catches fire, there are often a few warning signs. Here’s what to look for:
Heat: It’s completely normal for batteries to generate some heat when charging or in use. But if your device’s lithium-ion battery feels extremely hot to the touch, there’s a good chance it’s defective and at risk to start a fire.
Swelling: When a lithium battery fails, another common sign is battery swelling. If your battery looks swollen, you should stop using it immediately. Similar signs include any type of lump or bulge, or leakage from the device.
Noise: Failing lithium batteries have also been reported to make hissing or cracking sounds.
Odor: If you notice a strong or unusual odor coming from the battery, this is also a bad sign.
Smoke: This one’s a little more obvious. But if your device is smoking, a fire has already started.
What do I do if my lithium battery is failing?
If your device is showing any of the above warning signs, take the following steps:
Immediately turn off the device and unplug it from the power source.
Slowly move the device to a safe, isolated area away from anything flammable. Use tongs or gloves to avoid touching the device with your bare skin.
Call the device manufacturer or retailer for further instructions.
How can I prevent a battery fire?
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), there are several precautions you can take to help prevent lithium battery fires.
Follow instructions. Always follow the device manufacturer’s instructions for storage, use, charging and maintenance.
Avoid knock-offs. Only replace batteries and chargers with components specifically designed and approved for your device.
Watch where you charge. Avoid charging your device on flammable surfaces like under a pillow, on your bed or on the couch.
Unplug your device. Remove devices and batteries from the charger once they are fully charged.
Store batteries properly. Lithium-ion batteries should always be stored in a cool, dry place. Don’t place batteries in direct sunlight.
Inspect for damage. Regularly inspect your device and batteries for the warning signs listed above.
What should I do if a lithium battery catches fire?
If a fire occurs, lithium-ion batteries can be extinguished by pouring water on the device (just make sure it’s unplugged!). Lithium-metal batteries, on the other hand, should be extinguished using a Class D fire extinguisher.
When batteries catch fire, they often make the news. Remember the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 or hoverboard fires? But in reality, lithium battery fires are rare. According to the tech reporting site CNET, your odds of a lithium battery fire are about 1 in 10 million.
How should I dispose of lithium batteries?
When your device or lithium battery is at the end of its usable life, don’t just throw it in the trash. Recycle it instead. Contact your local recycling center to find a facility near you. Or ask your local electronics retailer if they have a battery recycling program.
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