A lithium-ion battery is a kind of rechargeable battery that you will often see used in cell phones, laptops, and e-cigarettes. They are used due to them being considered safe, however, that doesn’t mean that failures don’t happen and fires have been known.
Earlier this month Southern Motion recalled about 2,300 pieces of wireless power reclining furniture due to the lithium-ion batteries that are used to power them which can overheat, causing a fire risk. At the time of recall, Southern Motion was aware of six incidents involving the batteries overheating and causing fires. The Yamaha Guitar Group recalled around 86,700 digital guitar systems and USB charging cables after they were found to pose a fire risk.
How do Lithium-Ion Batteries Catch Fire?
While the chances may be slim, lithium-ion battery fires can and do happen as it can in any device that stores energy. There are two basic types of battery failures:
- Involves a design flaw and often involve a recall to correct the issue
- Harder to pinpoint. It could be a stress event like charging at sub-freezing temperature, vibration, or a fluke incident.
A small short within the cell will cause elevated self-discharge with minimal heat build-up. If enough microscopic metallic particles converge on one spot, a sizable current begins to flow between the electrodes of the cell, and the spot heats up and weakens. This can quickly raise the temperature to 500°C (932°F). This build-up would cause the cell to catch fire and/or explode.
While failures can happen in well-known consumer products, the biggest issue is when people use non-certified batteries such as when you have a cell phone repaired. You may choose the lowest possible price but these repairs are usually done with non-certified batteries which are dangerous as they do not use the same quality controls during manufacture.
Using Water Could be Deadly
Lithium-ion batteries, in theory, are a class A risk and can be extinguished with water but this should be avoided as it can cause dangerous and potentially deadly side effects due to the gasses being released from the Fluorine in the electrolyte solution.
How to Extinguish Lithium-Ion Battery Fires
Class D fire extinguishers contain dry powder and are meant for combustible metal fires only and should never be used on lithium-ion fires as the batteries do not actually contain any lithium metal. This type of extinguisher just wouldn’t be effective.
Instead, the most effective fire extinguisher would be either the standard ABC or a BC dry chemical extinguisher. Class B is the classification given to flammable liquids. Lithium-ion batteries contain liquid electrolytes that provide a conductive pathway, so the batteries receive a B fire classification.
To see more on the different types of fire extinguishers, check out our guide here. In general, they are as follows:
- Class A – fires fuelled by solids such as paper, wood, and plastic
- Class B – fires fuelled by flammable liquids such as paraffin, petrol, and oil (not cooking oils)
- Class C – fires fuelled by flammable gases such as propane, butane, and methane
- Class D – fires fuelled by metals such as aluminium, magnesium, and titanium
- Class E – fires involving electrical apparatus
- Class F – fires fuelled by cooking oils and fats