As a leading business insurer, we are all too aware of the risks that lithium-ion batteries can pose in commercial and industrial environments.
Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries were first introduced in 1991. Today, they’re everywhere. Think about how many rechargeable devices are in your home and workplace - from the fitness tracker on your wrist, your mobile phone, tablet and laptop to e-scooters and e-bikes.
Now, with the push for greater sustainability influencing many businesses, new applications for lithium-ion batteries are being embraced, such as their use in power tools, forklifts and electric vehicles.
As a way to store energy from the sun, wind and other renewable sources, battery energy storage systems (BESS) can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Compared to its competitors, lithium-ion batteries have a high power-to-weight ratio, high energy efficiency, good high-temperature performance, and low self-discharge[i]
In normal use, lithium-ion batteries are stable and work as intended with no problems. However, these batteries are particularly sensitive to high temperatures and are inherently flammable, as well as being sensitive to cold temperatures and over-charging.
Certain circumstances, such as if the battery has been damaged by dropping or piercing of the device, even heavy jolting, can trigger a fault inside the battery causing it to short circuit. This can cause the battery to severely overheat very quickly and go into ‘thermal runaway’, which can then lead to a fire.
There are several technologies used for lithium-based batteries but the most commonly used is referred to as NMC, as, in addition to lithium, the other main materials are nickel, manganese and cobalt. Compared to other battery technologies, NMC batteries are the ones most often involved in fires in vehicles, phones, laptops, e-scooters etc. as the technology is less stable when damaged and can be more volatile.
Lithium-ion battery fires are very dangerous and can be difficult to deal with because they release a flammable and toxic vapour which helps to fuel the fire. Specially designed lithium battery fire extinguishers known as fire extinguishers are available. These release a water-based solution of a material called vermiculate and seals around the damaged battery to limit further fire spread. However, all employees should be made aware that the vermiculite does not stop the thermal runaway process and corresponding fire and explosion risk; the thermal runaway process will continue under the vermiculate and is waiting to accelerate again. The benefit of using vermiculate-based Lith-Ex fire extinguishers is that it gives people time to escape whilst giving firefighters time to respond and to move the device to a safer location.
As an alternative to a lithium battery fire extinguisher, a Class B fire extinguisher (powder, foam, CO2) can also be used, although the risk of the fire reigniting is more likely.
In addition to public place, Lithium-ion battery fires are occurring in people’s homes, where Lith-Ex extinguishers are not available. If a fire starts while using a personal mobility device (such as a e-scooter or e-bike), an electronic device (such as a phone or laptop) or while using an electric/hybrid vehicle, no one should attempt to extinguish the fire unless they’re trained and are using Lith-Ex extinguishers. Those impacted as well as any by-standers should evacuate and stay at least 10 metres (half a tennis court) away from the item on fire. This is important as the explosive force of a fire and thermal runaway release can throw hot metal and burning chemicals many metres.
As a leading business insurer, we are all too aware of the risks that lithium-ion batteries can pose in commercial and industrial environments. To migrate this risk, at a minimum, their use and resulting fire risk is something that should be addressed as part of a business’ fire protection and emergency response arrangements.
Whilst we can’t cover every aspect of risk management in this article, we would suggest that raising awareness of lithium-ion battery risks should include: