What to watch out for with lithium-ion batteries?

Lithium-ion batteries (Li-ion) are widely used in various devices and machinery today, powering the way we live, work, and connect. The number of devices using Li-ion batteries in households and businesses worldwide is enormous, since they are used everywhere, regardless of the industry.

They are found in laptops, mobile phones, backup power systems, electric bikes, and scooters. On a bigger scale, electric cars, forklift trucks and energy storage systems (ESS) are also utilising Li-ion technology. The demand for lithium-ion batteries has been projected to increase seven-fold between the years 2022–2030. While we rely on the convenience and power of lithium-ion batteries, how aware are we of the risks they bear? In this article, we explore the risks to watch out for with lithium-ion batteries, mainly the fire hazards in their use, and the key role of risk awareness, preventive measures, and immediate fire suppression in minimising damage.

Lithium-ion battery hazards

There have been several occurrences highlighting the risks associated with lithium-ion battery fires: Cases have been reported where everyday devices such as laptops and mobile phones have caught fire while charging or during use, resulting in bodily injuries and house fires. Electric vehicle (EV) fires have gained significant public attention in recent years.

If a lithium-ion battery in a forklift, for example, is on fire, it can develop and pose a substantial fire hazard for the whole industrial site or warehouse. Such fires can cause extensive property damage, especially when they develop near combustible fire load, and are anything but easy to extinguish, even for the most experienced firefighters. The bigger the battery, the greater the potential fire.

Understanding of the most suitable firefighting techniques for larger-scale lithium-ion battery fires has evolved over the years, but there are still challenges due to the complexity and variability of these types of fires.

In 2022, the New York City Fire Department responded to more than 200 e-scooter and e-bike fire incidents, which unfortunately resulted in six fatalities. Furthermore, Li-ion battery fires make up a shocking 48% of all waste fires that occur in the UK each year. The economic impact is significant, with a cost of £158 million.

Understanding the science behind the risk

Why are these types of fires so aggressive?

Lithium-ion batteries are vulnerable to a phenomenon called thermal runaway, which may cause the battery to catch fire.

One of the most common reasons for lithium-ion battery fires is an internal short circuit within the battery.
These internal short circuits can occur due to

  • external mechanical damage (e.g., dropping, crushing or penetration)
  • external overheating of the battery
  • chemical contamination
  • incorrect charging
  • mismatched parts
  • neglected maintenance.

When the short circuit occurs, the internal chemicals within the battery can react vigorously, resulting in a fire. This fire can quickly spread beyond the device or machinery. Lithium-ion battery fire gases, such as hydrogen fluoride (HF) and smoke, can be life-threatening.

Aside from the fire risk, devastating vapour cloud explosions (VCE) must be considered as well. In some battery chemistries, there is a lower risk of fire but a higher risk of VCE – or the other way around. Fires and explosions do not, however, exclude each other.

A thermal runaway in a battery system generally originates from a single cell, which then causes a chain reaction. When cooling is not applied, this process may continue until all cells in a battery system are involved.

Responsibility for lithium-ion battery safety

Prevention of lithium-ion fires concerns both the manufacturer and the user.

Manufacturers play a pivotal role in ensuring product quality and safety through testing, which assesses various aspects, including product evaluation, component examination (e.g., battery and casing), inspection of any integrated elements, and the scrutiny of battery chargers.

In cases of suspected battery defects leading to fires, battery suppliers may be liable. However, identifying the precise fire source and assigning any liability to the supplier becomes extremely complex when a product is consumed or severely damaged in a fire. Still, even if the original source of the fire is somewhere else, lithium-ion batteries will accelerate the fire.

It is important to note that the responsibility for lithium-ion fire safety does not rest solely on the shoulders of manufacturers. Their users, too, share a responsibility when they use products equipped with Li-ion batteries. Just like in many other electronics, there is always a risk of a fire in their use, which will increase when using the products incorrectly.

FIVE points to consider with lithium-ion batteries

1. Fire safety awareness and training

  • It is important to educate all employees on the risks of lithium-ion batteries, both in industrial sites and in office environments.
  • Lithium-ion fire safety training is highly significant for any business but especially for those using larger scale lithium-ion battery-powered devices.
  • Personnel should also understand when it is safe to start trying to extinguish a starting fire, how to do it safely, and in which cases to evacuate immediately.

2. Comply with the manufacturer’s instructions

  • Ensure that the batteries have the appropriate CE marking and accompanying documentation, demonstrating conformity with relevant national and EN standards for all components.
  • Batteries and devices should have a Battery Management System (BMS) responsible for averting operation beyond established safety limits.
  • Utilise the manufacturer’s charger, cords, and power adapters exclusively for the device. Avoid the use of third-party accessories – they may not meet the required safety standards.

3. Safe storage and handling

  • Place batteries away from any combustible materials and high-heat environments.
  • Do not store any fire load, especially flammable liquids or gases, near a rechargeable battery or the device.
  • The charging surface should be non-combustible material.
  • Refrain from leaving the battery on a charger continuously to prevent overcharging situations.
  • Prevent direct sunlight exposure for lithium-ion batteries. This applies to mobile phones as well.
  • When storing the equipment for a longer period of time, remove the battery to prevent potential electrical issues and overheating.
  • Larger Li-ion systems, such as EV and forklift charging stations, should be positioned clear of fire escape routes or combustible materials.
  • The charging areas for EVs and forklift trucks should comply with relevant standards, have their own fire-resistant compartment, and have automatic fire detection and sprinkler protection.
  • Therefore, larger EVs such as cars and forklift trucks should be parked and charged in a place where they can burn out in the event of a fire without any further fire spreading.

4. Be vigilant for malfunction

  • The condition of the equipment should be inspected and monitored on a regular basis.
  • The battery becoming hot to touch can indicate malfunctioning.
  • A lithium-ion battery may swell due to overcharging, over-discharging, or exposure to higher temperatures.
  • Any liquid leaking from the battery or strange smell can be a sign of a problem.
  • If the battery is not holding a charge as long as it used to, it could be nearing the end of its life.
  • Any visible damage to the battery, such as dents or punctures, is a cause for concern.

5. In case of a fire

  • Sometimes, even the most efficient preventive measures fail. Proper and early fire suppression efforts are essential to minimising the damage caused by any fire.
  • Traditional firefighting methods, such as water suppression by drowning the device in a water container and using ABC extinguishers, are mostly applicable to smaller lithium-ion batteries.
  • At the moment, there are no suitable extinguishing agents available to handle large-scale lithium-ion battery fires.
  • In the event of a fire, avoiding inhalation of smoke and promptly evacuating the area to a safe location is crucial.
lithium-ion battery fire tests
If Insurance lithium-ion battery fire tests

Awareness of risks must follow growing popularity

In general, lithium-ion battery fires are luckily quite rare, but when they do happen, they tend to have severe consequences. In the ever-expanding landscape of lithium-ion battery applications, it is imperative to recognise both the immense advantages and potential fire hazards these power sources entail. While they offer high energy density and rapid charging, mitigating their risks demands comprehensive risk management and firm commitment to fire safety.

At If Insurance, we promote the cause of safe lithium-ion battery development through proactive engagement in research endeavours and dialogues with key stakeholders. These include firefighters, academic researchers, reputable manufacturers, and our in-house risk specialists.

As the popularity and use of lithium-ion batteries continue to soar, it is paramount that our awareness follows. Only through effective and proactive risk management can we substantially diminish the likelihood of fire-related damage, safeguarding personnel and property alike.


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Delaney, P., 2023. Rise In Lithium-Ion Battery Demand Causing Challenges. Available at: https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/rise-in-lithium-ion-battery-demand-7348302/

Jowett, P., 2021. Resource.co. Lithium-ion battery fires costing UK economy £158 million annually. Available at: https://resource.co/article/lithium-ion-battery-fires-costing-uk-economy-158-million-annually

CNN Business, 2023. Lithium-ion battery fires are happening more often. Here’s how to prevent them. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2023/03/09/tech/lithium-ion-battery-fires/index.html

Finnish Safety and Chemicals Agency, 2023. Lifecycle of lithium-ion batteries. Available at: https://tukes.fi/en/lifecycle-of-lithium-ion-batteries

Written by

Tuomas Kaleva, If