As we ramped up to Christmas last year, a new product was catching the market on fire and then catching pretty much everything else on fire: hoverboards that used substandard lithium ion batteries. The hoverboards were eventually pulled from many stores and barred from airplanes. However, from time to time, smartphones catch fire and so do laptops. And given that I almost lost my house to a lithium ion battery on an electric bicycle, I’m particularly aware that any energy storage device mistreated or acting strangely could become deadly.
Now the odds of having this happen to you or an employee are relatively low, but the more batteries you have, and the higher their capacity, the larger those odds grow. There have been over 40 recalls associated with lithium ion batteries in the last decade or so.
Considering that our vehicles, technology products, and even some homes and businesses are increasingly using lithium ion batteries, we should remind ourselves that this technology needs to be treated respectfully. This is what a burning lithium ion battery looks like in a laptop and in a cell phone. (It’s amazing how much heat one of these things can put out.) Knowing what to do with these batteries could save your life.
Don’t Buy Aftermarket Batteries from Unbranded Suppliers
The problem with the hoverboards (other than the fact that they don’t actually hover) is that they used low-cost substandard batteries and chargers. These low-quality products are what are generally connected to fires. In general, batteries from a branded supplier like Panasonic can be trusted but be aware of counterfeit batteries in the market that look like they come from a branded vendor and do not. Always buy from trusted suppliers, preferably from the firm that built the product that these batteries are going into. Do the same with the charger. A charger that charges too fast may overheat even a good battery and cause it to fail catastrophically.
Dispose of Batteries Properly
Lithium ion is hazardous waste but, more importantly, it has about a third of the energy density of dynamite. If it discharges quickly, it can do a lot of damage. Even in your trash, it can find enough combustible material to take out your business or house. It’s best to keep the batteries separate, don’t store them together in large numbers (so one battery doesn’t set off a bunch of them), and dispose of them through a proper service. Many of the stores that sell these batteries will dispose of them for you and cities have places where you can drop them off for legal destruction or recycling. In particular, you don’t want to put them into a trash compactor that could crush them or otherwise puncture them because that could result in a catastrophic failure, and under pressure with other flammable material, an explosion.
Isolate Them from Metal
The most obvious hazard for any battery is a short circuit. This means you don’t want to store batteries around conductive material like metal or wiring. Again, don’t store them together, and make sure they are stored away from flammable material and from anything that could cause them to short out.
If Dropped, Consider Replacing
Most laptop and cell phone battery fires are believed to occur as the result of some kind of physical damage. Most of the Tesla fires I’ve covered have resulted from something penetrating the battery containment (which is impressive on the Tesla). If you see damage around the battery, it’s best to be safe and have it replaced. It’s far better to incur the cost of a new battery than that of a home or car.
Replace the Battery if It Gets Wet
You can dry out your phone and use it if it gets wet, but if corrosion builds up on the battery, it could short out. Once water gets inside the battery case, it’s particularly hard to both get it out and see if corrosion has started. Replacing the battery could help prevent an otherwise catastrophic outcome.
Careful with Charging
Charge batteries away from other flammable products and don’t leave them charging for long periods unattended. If a battery appears to be overheating, remove it from the charger immediately, place it someplace safe (preferably on cement or something non-conductive and non-flammable). If the battery deforms in any way, replace it because it’s likely a cell has failed and there is an increased chance of explosion.
As the energy density in batteries is increased, so are the risks of catastrophic discharge. Poorly made batteries making it into the supply chain add to that danger. As it is with any technology that is potentially dangerous, learning how to handle lithium ion safely is important. Look for the warning signs of excessive heat or distorted batteries.
One last note: If you do have a lithium ion fire, don’t breathe the fumes (they are toxic). Either let it burn itself out or use a Class D fire extinguisher (smothering may not work and using water on an electrical fire is very dangerous). If you can safely isolate the fire from everything else, do that, but keep yourself safe first. And when in doubt, replace the batteries.
A regular reminder to employees about the dangers of this technology and what to do if there is a problem would seem prudent as well.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+