Lithium-ion batteries are found almost everywhere: in electric scooters, toothbrushes, smartphones, music devices, laptops, toys, small and large energy storage devices usually surround us in our living spaces. However, they frequently cause fires, some of which are serious. Because when a lithium-ion battery “ignites,” extremely hot and surprisingly long flames shoot out from the tiny power cells. They set fire to combustible materials in their surroundings very quickly.
According to the Loss Prevention Institute, technical defects or improper handling can cause defects that cause a lithium-ion battery to suddenly and uncontrollably release stored energy – something called “thermal runaway.” The battery catches fire very quickly and violently. This causes nearby combustible materials to ignite and fires can occur very quickly.
Experts warn that this is a risk that is often underestimated. Very few people supervise charging operations or place devices to be charged in fire-resistant containers. “If the battery catches fire, for example when charging a mobile phone in an apartment, significant damage can happen quickly,” says Sascha Unterkircher from the Vorarlberg Fire Prevention Office. According to Unterkircher, about 20 battery fires occur in Vorarlberg every year.
High energy density means fire risk
Lithium technology enables relatively compact designs that are at the same time relatively high performance – Li-ion batteries therefore have a high energy density. “Unfortunately, this desirable characteristic is accompanied by a fire risk that does not exist with the same intensity as for batteries of other designs,” the Loss Prevention Institute for Insurers (IFS) wrote: “Fires caused by Li-ion batteries have occurred more and more in recent years. Clearly recognized as a typical damage pattern in the IFS database, the trend shows a continuous increase in the number of cases.
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Tips to prevent battery fires:
- Use only chargers designated by the manufacturer of the battery in question
- Never disassemble, open or shred rechargeable batteries
- Never expose rechargeable batteries to high temperatures above 60 degrees – for example in cars in the sun
- Frost or very low temperatures can also damage battery cells and cause them to overheat the next time they are charged.
- Cells/batteries must not be short-circuited – so tape the poles when storing them
- Protect batteries from mechanical damage: Liquid leakage is dangerous
- Always dispose of cells/batteries properly
- Don't make your own battery packs: Connecting lithium-ion battery cells and setting up battery management systems (BMS) is in the hands of professionals
What to do in case of fire?
If a battery fire starts to ignite, it is necessary to intervene quickly, says Sascha Unterkircher from the Fire Prevention Office: “When lithium-ion batteries burn, a lot of extinguishing agents need to be used, and in particular, battery fires are extinguished with a lot of extinguishing agents.” water. If it is at the initial stage, there is only the possibility of taking the device in question outdoors.
In the event of a fire, the Loss Prevention Institute advises:
- If the burned-out battery is still connected to the mains, disconnect the charger from the mains. Then wipe the battery with water.
- IMPORTANT: Lithium-ion batteries often react with a time delay, meaning that even if the fire appears to be extinguished, the chemical processes inside the cell have not automatically stopped. Therefore, the batteries must continue to be cooled with water.
- Since re-ignition cannot be ruled out, the eventually extinguished battery should be moved to a safe location, for example, on a non-flammable surface outside.
- If in doubt, call the fire department before a battery fire spreads into a house fire.
Do not charge without supervision
In order to be able to respond quickly if necessary, batteries should never be charged unattended, fire prevention experts advise: “When charging, special care should be taken, if possible, so that it is done under supervision and not during the night when,” says Unterkircher. “The whole thing is unmonitored.”
Dispose of even the smallest batteries properly
Across Austria, around 850 tons of discarded batteries end up in the trash every year. More than every second battery is disposed of incorrectly and potentially dangerously. This increases the risk of fire and can cause environmental damage. The correct disposal sites – even for the smallest batteries – will be recycling collection centers in communities.
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