Lithium-ion Batteries

There has been a significant rise in fires related to lithium-ion batteries. Find out how to identify these batteries, understand the risks and be prepared in the event of an incident.

Types of lithium-ion batteries

Many modern portable devices contain a rechargeable lithium-ion battery (LiB). This includes devices such as phones, tablets, power banks, computers, toys, appliances and tools, as well as mobility equipment such as electric bikes and scooters.

Identifying lithium-ion batteries

The batteries can be cylindrical, flat, rectangular, or pouch/device specific. They can be difficult to identify as there is currently no requirement or standard for labelling.

If the battery is rechargeable and has ‘Li’ or ‘Lithium’ printed on it, you can safely assume that it is a lithium-ion battery. Common printings include:

  • lithium ion
  • Li-ion
  • Li-po
  • Lithium-polymer
  • or other variations of ‘Li’.

Why do lithium-ion batteries catch fire?

Lithium-ion batteries (LiBs) are energy-dense and contain material that is highly flammable. The risks and hazards associated with LiBs include fire and explosion, radiation, heat, chemical and electrical.

There are several situations that can lead to lithium-ion batteries catching fire, including:

  • overcharging or use of non-compliant charging equipment
  • overheating or exposure to heat or extreme temperatures
  • physical abuse (e.g., dropping, crushing, piercing, and/or vibrations)
  • short-circuiting, battery cell malfunctions or system faults
  • defects or contamination introduced during manufacture.

When LiBs fail, they can undergo thermal runaway. This involves violent bursting of one or multiple battery cells, hissing and release of toxic, flammable and explosive gases, and an intense, self-sustaining fire.

Non-rechargeable or disposable lithium batteries, or lithium metal batteries should also be treated with caution as they can expel molten flammable metal and emit toxic gases during a fire. Small fires involving single use, disposable lithium batteries should be treated as a LiB fire.

Preventing lithium-ion battery fires

To prevent an incident involving lithium-ion batteries (LiBs), only purchase and use devices and equipment from reputable manufacturers and suppliers.

Batteries or devices that are smoking or on fire

Thermal runaway events involving lithium-ion batteries (LiBs) can occur rapidly and can often be quite violent, involving toxic smoke and vapours, flames, and metal projectiles.

Never touch a swollen or ruptured device or battery with bare hands as the heat and/or chemicals can cause severe burns.

Act immediately if you notice any of the following:

  • pungent odours
  • discolouration, blistering, bulging, or swelling of the casing
  • leaking electrolyte
  • heating up and feeling extremely hot to touch
  • abnormal popping, hissing or crackling sounds
  • smoke and/or fumes.

Residential Battery Energy Storage Systems (BESS)

Residential Battery Energy Storage Systems (BESS) are increasingly being used in combination with solar panel systems. This technology commonly contains lithium-ion batteries.

Damaged BESS

A residential BESS that has been damaged by impact, fire, or water ingress must not be put back into operation, even if it appears to be operational. Always assume that the equipment is energised.

If it is safe to do so:

  • Follow any shutdown procedures displayed. This may be on or near the switchboard or adjacent to the BESS.
  • If the shutdown procedure cannot be found, identify the main power switch for the BESS and switch to OFF.

Contact the manufacturer and/or an authorised technician to inspect, disconnect and remove the equipment if it has been compromised.

Damaged BESS should be moved to a well-ventilated area outside. Store at least three metres from any structures and/or combustible materials, then seek the manufacturer’s advice on disposal.

Light Electric Vehicles (LEV)

Electric bicycles (e-bikes), electric scooters (e-scooters), electric mobility (e-mobility) scooters, and self-balancing scooters (hoverboards), known as ‘micromobility’ devices or light electric vehicles (LEV) often contain lithium-ion batteries (LiBs).

To prevent an incident involving LiBs, only purchase and use devices and equipment from reputable manufacturers and suppliers.

Electric vehicles (EVs)

Electric vehicles (EVs) commonly contain lithium-ion batteries. Follow the below advice to minimise your risk.

Be identifiable by emergency services
Install correct charging equipment
Install smoke or heat alarm
Charge safely

We extend our appreciation to NSW Fire and Rescue, Western Power and Solar Quotes for their valuable assistance in providing us with information and images.

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