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Dangers when handling lithium-ion batteries

Due to their design, lithium batteries harbor an increased risk potential - the associated fire risks can affect any commercial enterprise. This article looks at the potential dangers of handling lithium energy storage devices.

Technology that's a fire hazard?

Lithium-ion batteries are a comparatively recent technology. But since its market launch in the early 1990s, they have left a lasting mark on the energy storage market and gradually displaced old technologies. Today, it is impossible to imagine our everyday life without lithium batteries - and for good reason: they can be tiny and, at the same time, very efficient and are, therefore, of interest for a wide range of applications. Not only do smartphones and tablets draw their energy from lithium batteries, but they also play an essential role in electromobility. Lithium energy storage devices are an ideal choice because of their high energy density, low weight, and fast charging.

On the other side of the coin, dangerous incidents involving lithium energy storage devices are repeatedly reported. In 2017, a fire in a parking garage made the headlines, caused by the battery of an e-bike. In 2018, a man from Hamburg died when a battery charger exploded. There is no question: explosions and fires involving lithium-ion batteries can have devastating consequences, causing expensive consequential damage or, in the worst case, costing human lives. It's not just members of the public but also companies facing the urgent problem of ensuring the safest possible handling and storage. The fact remains that §5 ArbSchG obliges employers to identify and assess hazards and to implement suitable protective measures.

High safety standards for series products

By today's manufacturing standards, lithium batteries are considered comparatively safe. As a rule, various safety tests are carried out by the manufacturer before (series) products are put on the market. For example, the transport of lithium energy storage devices is only permitted if a test certificate by UN 38.3 is available. To obtain this certificate, several tests must be completed in which the batteries are tested under various transport conditions. This includes:

  • Altitude simulation
  • Thermal test
  • Vibration
  • Blow
  • Outer short
  • Impact / crush test
  • Overload
  • Forced discharge

As the batteries can be stressed beyond their load limits during such tests, they take place under special safety conditions. Many of our customers additionally carry out their test series, e.g., to verify the safety of the batteries in connection with their products. They use DENIOS technical room systems as a safe test environment.

To increase the safety of lithium-ion batteries, manufacturers can already equip them with various safety devices at the cell level. If a flammable electrolyte is used within the cell, for example, flame retardant additives can be added to provide better protection. Storage of the battery in an impact-resistant, corrosion-proof housing with fire-retardant foam can also be an effective measure.

"Thermal Runaway"

Nevertheless, special care should be taken when handling lithium-ion batteries - because dangerous fires occur repeatedly. If anything happens, the consequences are often disastrous. The risk lies in the construction of the battery itself. When materials with a high energy density come into contact with the highly flammable electrolyte, these create a hazardous mix. The situation becomes especially dangerous when a lithium battery releases its stored energy uncontrolled. As soon as the heat produced exceeds the melting point of the separator, an uncontrollable chain reaction is started, the dreaded "thermal runaway."

The high levels of heat energy then vaporize the electrolyte fluid, creating additional heat and combustible gases. If the pressure rises above a certain point, the flammable gases are released and form an ignitable mixture with the air - flames develop outside the battery. Thermal runaway in just one cell is enough to heat the neighboring cells in a battery block so that a devastating chain reaction is created. Once set in motion, it only takes a few minutes until the battery will burn and explode. These lithium-ion battery fires are difficult to control, and the fire spread quickly. The fire brigade can often only protect neighboring areas.

Common causes of fire

In regular operation, the use of lithium batteries is considered safe. But, according to VDE, this only applies as long as everyone handles them correctly. For example, if lithium-ion batteries are handled or stored incorrectly, they can pose a significant safety risk. In addition, factory defects cannot always be ruled out.

These 3 things are particularly dangerous:

Electrical overload

Mechanical damage

Thermal overload

Electrical overload

A typical risk in handling lithium batteries is common, namely charging and discharging. An electrical overload can occur here for several reasons, e.g., due to the use of an incorrect charger. But fire can also occur as a result of a deep discharge. If lithium-ion batteries are not used for a long time, they can become completely discharged. Incorrect storage conditions - for example, outside the manufacturer's recommended storage temperature - can promote this effect. This leads to the decomposition of the electrolyte liquid and, consequently, to the formation of highly flammable gases. If an attempt is made to recharge the deeply discharged lithium-ion cells, the energy supplied can no longer be converted correctly due to insufficient electrolyte fluid. A short circuit or fire may occur.

Mechanical damage

When handling lithium-ion batteries, there is always a particular risk of damaging them. Collisions with company vehicles, falling onto the hard ground, or crushing due to incorrect storage conditions are just a few examples of mechanical damage. If cells are deformed, this can lead to internal short circuits and a fire in the battery. Also, contamination during the production of the cells themselves cannot be 100% ruled out. In rare cases, particles that enter the cell during the show can damage it from the inside over time. Internal short circuits can then also occur.

Thermal overload

External heat or energy sources can heat lithium batteries and thus lead to fire due to thermal overload. Typical sources of danger are, for example, open fire, hot machine parts, or storage in direct sunlight.

In general the following applies:

The potential risk associated with lithium-ion batteries increases the more energy the batteries used/stored can store and the larger the quantity stored. This, as well as your individual operational and structural conditions, processes, and organizational conditions, should continuously be assessed on a case-by-case basis as part of a risk assessment.

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