Handling Lithium Batteries
Lithium batteries are arguably the most popular batteries for home appliances. They come in many shapes, sizes, and colors. They however have a common feature in utilizing metallic lithium as their anode. Compared to other batteries, they are safer and lighter in weight. Although they are a bit expensive in comparison to their competitors from a buyer’s perspective, they edge out their competition due to their vitality and productivity.
But, how safe are they?
In this article, we will determine how safe lithium batteries are. We will analyze what may cause them to explode, what their components are, and how to handle them in case they explode. We will also look at precautions you can take to minimize the batteries catching fire.
What’s Inside a Lithium-Ion Battery
Lithium (Li-ion) batteries comprise four main components:
The cathode’s primary function is to determine the battery’s voltage and capacity. The cathode is a multi-metal combination of manganese, cobalt, and nickel. The lithium battery chemical reaction happens here.
Similar to the cathode, the anode has active reactions occurring in it. The function of the anode is to allow electric current through electrons to flow through it.
The electrolyte allows the movement of lithium ions between the cathode and anode during charging and discharging. Electrons on the other hand move through the metal sheets or wire. This movement is what allows the battery’s effective functioning.
The separator ensures the safety of the battery by acting as a barrier between the cathode and the anode.
What causes lithium batteries to explode?
After you’ve understood the components of the lithium battery, you may have a hint of what may cause an explosion. The short answer is a short circuit.
Effective and efficient functioning of a lithium battery depend on the direction of movement of lithium ions. When charging, the ions move from the cathode to the anode. The reverse happens when power is disconnected. Lithium which is unstable is great at storing energy.
Due to the volatile nature of lithium, lithium ions in the battery are released slowly and progressively. However, should there be an instance when they are released in one go, an explosion may occur. These mainly happen when the separator fails and the anode and cathode touch.
Do lithium batteries explode when punctured?
Yes, they do. But this is a technical answer usually dependent on the size of the puncture.
If punctured with a needle for example, there will be traces of white smoke as oxygen entering the battery reacts with lithium. This is not an explosion but it is a telling example of what will happen with a bigger puncture.
The internal composition of a li-ion battery contains electrodes made up of small metal sheets that are a few mm from each other. In case of a puncture, these electrodes suffer shorts. This then leads to the battery exploding.
Between the electrodes, there is an electrolyte layer. Each electrode is coated with its substance; one is coated with lithium while the other has oxygen compounds. Both of these substances are highly reactive. In a healthy battery, lithium ions move freely. The ions react with oxygen resulting in a continuous flow of ions. This creates a balance as the lithium electrode becomes negative while the oxygen one becomes positive.
In a punctured battery, however, there is no free and continuous flow of ions thus creating an imbalance. The electrodes become short which can cause the battery to explode.
How to minimize the Risk of Lithium Battery explosion?
It is important to take care of your li-ion battery. Handle it with care and do not expose it to volatile conditions, especially hot temperatures. Also, check to make sure that its internal composition is not compromised.
There are several ways to minimize the chances of a lithium battery fire, these are:
• Do not store, put or keep the battery next to hot surfaces or in hot places. The recommended temperature to store the battery is 20℃ to 25℃.
• If possible, keep the appliances with lithium-ion batteries in different places, e.g. during travel. Try to keep these appliances in separate bags, should that be impossible, store them in separate compartments. Being close does not make the batteries susceptible to fire. However, it increases the chance of more damage if one battery catches fire.
• Do not overcharge your battery. Li-ion batteries are good in that they do not constantly run out of power. Do not let your battery completely drain out. Use the correct type of charger to your lithium-ion battery to avoid chances of damage.
Do lithium-ion batteries explode in the water?
Lithium-ion batteries do not explode in water.
The only chance of these batteries exploding is if they are punctured, submerged in water, and somehow there is a current running through them. Modern lithium-ion batteries have safety measures to reduce the chances of explosions. Even in the case, that water gets into the cells. In this case, there will be a chemical reaction due to the imbalance created when water gets in contact with volatile materials in the battery. This reaction is however not strong enough to cause an explosion.
What to Do if a Lithium-Ion Battery Explodes?
If your lithium-ion battery explodes, there are several ways you can handle the situation. These include:
• You should prevent fire from spreading by using water to control it. Use specific extinguishers for specific causes of fire e.g. Use a class D fire extinguisher for a lithium-metal battery.
• Use a foam extinguisher for lithium-ion batteries. If this is not available, you can use CO2, copper powder, the ABC dry chemical, or sodium carbonate (soda).
• If you are unable to put out the fire, create a controlled environment for the batteries to burn.
• Take note of the burning cells as each could burn on its own time.
• If the fire spreads to other areas, use the recommended extinguishers to put out the fire. Always avoid chances of making a fire worse.
• Use trained or qualified personnel to deal with lithium-ion explosions.
As noted, the chances of lithium-ion battery explosions are rare. However, should an explosion happen, make sure you have the right equipment to put out the fire. If this is accessible, contact qualified personnel.