Lithium-ion batteries have been long hailed as the next big breakthrough, destined to change many industries forever. Widely used today, these batteries are expected to power our future, as their adoption grows. Already today, lithium-ion batteries support a growing list of real-world applications. Key to military and even aerospace radio-controlled applications, such as the Mars Curiosity rover, the technology is vital for such innovations as electric and hybrid cars, autonomous vehicles, renewable energy storage – just to name a few.
Yet, the technology has one major drawback – the fire risk it presents. Recently, we’ve seen videos and images of parked Teslas exploding in Shanghai and in the US. Both make the difficulties of putting out lithium-ion fires all too real. While gasoline and electric cars can catch fire when involved in heavy crashes, dealing with flames from the two types of vehicles requires different approaches.
One of the more recent electric vehicle (EV) crashes, which happened in Landeck, Austria, required five vehicles and 35 people to bring the electric vehicle’s fire under control. Firefighters had to wear self-contained breathing apparatuses due to the release of toxic vapours including sulfuric acid, oxides of carbon, nickel, lithium, copper and cobalt from the burning lithium-ion batteries. It was only after cutting the power supply from the high-performance batteries and using large amounts of water to cool the battery that it was possible to finally put out the fire. Moreover, since lithium-ion batteries were used, the manufacturer recommended that the vehicle be parked under “quarantine” for 48 hours, so that no new fire could break out, which required more responders’ time for supervision purposes.
While fires linked to EV collisions are to be expected, transportation of lithium-ion batteries on their own can be a hazard. Generally considered safe, lithium-ion batteries are still classified as Dangerous Goods – Class 9 “Miscellaneous substances” to be exact – by both the International Civil Aviation Organisation and the International Air Transport Association (IATA). This has been done with good reason. Damaged lithium-ion batteries have been implicated in numerous incidents, putting passengers at risk and in some cases causing transporting aircraft to crash.
Fortunately, we no longer have to compromise safety in exchange for progress. The right technology to transport lithium-ion batteries already exists. When transported, these batteries can be safely carried in specialised aluminium cases that are tested to UN 4B standards and conform to all relevant UN / IATA specifications.
One such example is ZARGES’s UN-tested K 470 Battery Box case made of strong but lightweight aluminium and supplied with fire-resistant cushions – a perfect container for transporting lithium-ion batteries safely. Each container can hold up to three batteries of up to 814WH and is equipped with fireproof padding as well as absorbent materials made of textured glass fibres. This delivers the ultimate protection for hazardous goods and also for human handlers.
Our experience with Formula E teams shows how we can make these potentially dangerous batteries safe. Lithium-ion batteries are used in both Formula E and also Formula 1 racing for a number of reasons; safety, response time, and flexibility of packing options to fit into cars. Fast, exciting and technically challenging, these cars are some of the best engineered machines in the world, and they travel all over the globe. Advancements in battery technology mean they play a vital role in getting the cars out of the pits and speeding around the track. This provides a valuable lesson for a range of other industries.
Interestingly, the inherent issue with lithium-ion batteries was their power density at the time they first started being used in motorsports. Since then, Formula 1 has delivered power density 100 times of what had been expected of lithium-ion, thanks to constant investment and relentless innovation, which could actually be part of the reason why we have the Tesla and other electric vehicles and are on the brink of adoption of autonomous vehicles. Nowadays, lithium-ion battery fire hazards are associated with the high energy densities coupled with the flammable organic electrolyte. Manufacturer’s defects such as imperfections and/or contaminants in the manufacturing process can also lead to explosions and fires. This creates new challenges for use, storage, and handling for many industries and companies alike.
I’m a great believer that firefighters aren’t just about putting out fires – they are about preventing them. Just like the electric motor racing industry, other sectors can benefit from the right storage / transportation technology. And firefighters can and should provide ongoing advice to at-risk industries, reducing the likelihood of having to attend to a difficult-to-put-out fire in the future.
Being certain that your batteries are transported in the safest way possible, and that fire risks are mitigated if damage arises to the batteries, is a key step towards the viability of their use. There are several best practice steps that individuals and companies can follow when handling lithium-ion batteries, in order to minimise and, hopefully, completely avoid a fire hazard.
First off, it’s always important to handle batteries and or battery-powered devices cautiously to not damage the battery casing or connections. Keep batteries from contacting conductive materials during use or transport, such as water, seawater, strong oxidisers and strong acids. Lithium-ion batteries should not be placed and left unattended in direct sunlight, on hot surfaces or in hot locations.
As far as the containers for transporting lithium-ion batteries are concerned, it is recommended that their interior is coated with an intumescent material that swells up and prevents flames from spreading – in case any issues were to occur. This material also ensures solid components are filtered out of the battery gases and liquid constituents condense on the fibre’s surface. Additionally, any leaked flammable gases cannot ignite, while the temperature at the surface never exceeds 100°C.
Even when handling and transporting batteries using the correct and UN-certified equipment and boxes, still do inspect batteries for signs of damage before use. Never use and promptly dispose of damaged or puffy batteries. If there is evidence of a battery malfunction (e.g., swelling, heating, or irregular odours), use personal protective equipment, such as gloves, goggles/safety glasses and lab coat before approaching or moving the battery.
It’s of paramount importance to keep all flammable materials away from operating or storage areas. Allow time for cooling before charging a battery that is still warm from usage and using a battery that is still warm from charging. Consider cell casing construction (soft with vents) and protective shielding for battery research and experimental or evolving application and use.
While lithium-ion battery technology has the potential to revolutionise many industries and help individual companies and teams reach the finish line faster, we can’t be complacent. Safety is a must, and the correct transportation equipment ensures we never have to ‘play with fire’ – only benefit from it.
For further information, go to www.zarges.com/uk