Prevention is the best form of defence against the risks associated with lithium-ion batteries. What steps can you take to keep yours in safe, working order?
For many businesses, the first sign that one of their lithium-ion batteries has become damaged is sadly a fire. Given the various risks associated with lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries, it's essential you know how to recognise the warning signs before an incident occurs.
Sometimes, damage to a cell will be obvious. But with a good eye and an awareness of what to look for, you might also be able to spot instances that could lead to future damage (for example, where batteries are being used in higher-risk environments or plain incorrectly).
“If you were sitting on flight 259 from Dallas to Orlando on Wednesday the 1st of March, 2023, or if you were a member of the flight crew, you would have been distressed, mid-flight, to see smoke start pouring from one of the luggage bins and fill the cabin.” Emtez, ‘Lithium-Ion Airline Incidents Soaring’
In this week’s article, we'll explore some of the key indicators of battery damage and provide practical tips for ensuring your batteries — and your operations — remain in top condition.
5 ways your lithium-ion batteries can be damaged
Battery damage can happen immediately as the result of a drop, a puncture compromising the integrity of the battery and its contents, or other high-impact incident. This is what a lot of people will picture when they think of battery damage, and it needs to be protected against.
But damage can also occur much more subtly over long periods of time, for example if the battery is routinely subjected to higher-than-recommended temperatures. Damage of this kind can be more difficult to spot but easier to prevent — if you know what to look for.
Li-ion batteries can become damaged in the following ways:
- Dropping, crushing, or the puncture of the battery by a foreign object can cause physical damage that increases the risk of failure.
- High temperatures (typically those exceeding 130°F) can cause the battery to overheat, risking thermal overload and the phenomenon known as thermal runaway. Specifically, elevated temperatures can accelerate the deterioration of almost every component within the battery. This includes temperatures lifted by external sources (eg. the battery’s continued exposure to heaters, naked flames) but also instances where the battery itself overheats due to defects, overcharging, or other damage.
- Low temperatures (below freezing) can also damage a battery when it is set to charge. At this temperature, metallic lithium can accrue on the anode during the charging process, leading to a permanent buildup and an increased risk of failure.
- Electrical overload when charging and discharging can increase pressure inside the battery. This can cause internal damage resulting in by-products leaking out, many of which are themselves combustible and a fire hazard.
- Incorrectly charged Li-ion batteries, ie. batteries charged not in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions, heightens the risk of overcharging. As with an electrical overload, this creates unstable conditions in the battery. Substituting a manufacturer-approved charger for one that powers up the battery faster, for example, can lead to the battery overcharging. Always follow the instructions.
Signs that a Li-ion battery is damaged
According to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), signs that a Li-ion battery is damaged include:
- Rising temperature
- Smoking before use
The number-one rule for damaged batteries
If your Li-ion battery is damaged, or you suspect it is damaged, do not charge it.
We can’t stress this enough. Attempting to charge a battery that has been damaged puts it at high risk of electrical overload and thermal runaway. Left to charge, it could explode.
A damaged battery should be immediately quarantined within a fire-rated unit. Failing to do this increases the risk that someone else from within the business might place the battery on charge, or that the defective battery could catch fire and trigger other batteries to explode.
This is best practice even if you can’t immediately confirm that the battery is damaged until further investigations have been carried out and the battery’s condition is determined.
Related read: Which Storage Types Do Your Lithium-Ion Batteries Need?
Assessing the risks to your operations
With accident prevention regulations for lithium-ion batteries inconsistent, the best way to reduce your risk is to implement robust safety measures appropriate to your operations.
This is not just important from an operational perspective; it could also impact any insurance claims you might need to make in the event that an incident does take place.
The testing of batteries, chargers, and associated equipment in line with governing standards is just one part of an effective risk assessment. For more information about the steps you can take to protect your operations, review our risk assessment checklist.
Designed specifically for Li-ion batteries, this helpful resource provides a basic framework for conducting risk assessments that will keep your batteries safe and your operations running.