Recent events on the new Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” aircraft have focused attention on the fire hazards posed by lithium-ion batteries. However, these fire hazards have been well understood, and fire protection engineers have been working to mitigate those hazards.
“Lithium-ion batteries have enabled a whole new generation of consumer products that would not have been possible without these batteries,” says Morgan Hurley, Technical Director of the Bethesda-based Society of Fire Protection Engineers. “Small consumer electronics like cell phones, tablets and notebook computers would not be possible without lithium-ion batteries. Lithium-ion batteries pack a tremendous amount of energy into a small, lightweight volume. However, lithium-ion batteries also pose fire hazards not present with other battery types.”
The fire hazards associated with lithium-ion batteries are well known. Lithium-ion batteries use a flammable hydrocarbon-based electrolyte instead of the water-based electrolytes used in other battery types. Under failure modes such as physical damage or overcharging, lithium-ion batteries can easily ignite.
According to Hurley, “lithium-ion batteries are critical components of modern electronics. However, it is important to design them such that the fire hazards are mitigated. Fire protection engineers have been working on ways to make lithium ion batteries safe for use.”
A 2012 article in Fire Protection Engineering magazine took an in-depth look at lithium-ion battery fire hazards. The article is available at http://magazine.sfpe.org/content/lithium-ion-battery-hazards.