Mass media’s love affair with cell batteries as an environmental solution to everything is creating a new mass delusion.
Battery-power gives life to every high tech gadget from smartphones to electric cars. We are told to embrace this greener, cleaner energy. But the spin often masks the worryingly deadly dangers.
Growing evidence shows that as manufacturers respond to pressures to make ever thinner, lighter batteries, increased incidents of injuries and deaths from spontaneous combustion suggests consumer safety is being compromised.
Fingers have been pointed at China, with accusations of a “Sloppy” battery industry.
In ‘Safety worries lead US airline to ban battery shipments’ (March 3, 2015) the BBC website gave a real hint that danger of batteries spontaneously bursting into flames was no mere conspiracy theory.
The BBC report revealed that United Airlines became the second major US airline to announce it will no longer carry bulk shipments of lithium-ion batteries. The article ran:
“Aviation officials believe lithium-ion batteries contributed to fires that destroyed two Boeing 747 cargo planes, killing all four crew members. Federal Aviation Administration tests found overheating batteries could cause major fires.”
Electric batteries have contributed to several fatal cargo plane fires in recent years. A terrifying New York Times article cites the Royal Aeronautical Society, pointing out that the sheer number of batteries we bring with us on our travels means the math is not in our favor. The NYT claims that flight attendants and other crew are reporting in-flight battery fires are “a monthly occurrence.”
Even the latest craze for e-cigarettes has become another cause for concern. As the Daily Telegraph’s ‘Vape cigarette battery sets fire to luggage in aircraft cargo hold‘ (October 25, 2016) proves.
The more gadgets we use that run on batteries, the more we expose ourselves to myriad new dangers from a sudden, unexpected and unpredictable cell battery ignition. What was once a very small risk, becomes greatly multiplied when there are so many highly volatile, lighter and thinner lithium battery devices are carried on our person, or in our vehicles.
Under most international air transport regulations, spare lithium-ion batteries CANNOT be carried in checked baggage under any circumstances but those under 100Wh — the kinds used to power phones, laptops, and cameras — can be carried in cabin baggage.
And it isn’t just air travelers who are at risk. If you are planning to buy an electric car, the newest slimmer smartphone or a super-light laptop, this nagging issue concerns you most because those devices depend on thinner battery casings.
Inside there is a lithium power source that is, weight-for-weight, packing more power than any other type of battery.
As ‘The Economist’ reports:
“Lithium batteries are widely used because of their high energy density: in other words, their ability to store a lot of energy in a lightweight, compact form. But they have a tendency to cause expensive machinery to go up in smoke.”
Ironically, Britain’s government is banning diesel and petrol vehicles from 2040 to compel citizens to use ‘cleaner and safer’ electric transport. But naysayers reveal there is nothing green, clean or renewable about battery-powered vehicles (see: ‘Why Electric Vehicles Are Not Renewable, Clean Or Green’).
Are we on an inevitable path to lunacy? By government diktat rather than market forces, battery power is determined to be our prime energy source in everything from mobile phones, calculators, laptops and other digital devices to cars, trucks and now even planes. It is estimated 4.8 billion lithium-ion cells were manufactured in 2013 and production is now forecast to grow beyond eight billion by 2025.
A major concern for consumers has always been the practicality and cost. The internal combustion engine (refueled in minutes rather than hours) is much cheaper and can travel far greater distances, so battery developers are desperately working to speed up battery charging times and vehicle range. But Techradar.com warns:
“The problem comes when they move too fast. The rate at which lithium-ion batteries charge is carefully limited so that the lithium doesn’t move too quickly – which, incidentally, is why batteries take time to charge.”
Also, in electric vehicles, hundreds, if not thousands of batteries, are needed to keep a vehicle powered for long journeys. In such quantities, they are very heavy and limit vehicle carrying capacity.
Lithium Fires More Dangerous, Harder to Extinguish
With so much pressure on manufacturers to develop better lithium batteries of high output with minimal weight. For example, battery outer casings are becoming thinner and less durable and this pushes the safety envelope to the extreme. Expert Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D. cautions,
“The partitions or coating are fairly fragile, so they can be punctured. Another possibility is that the battery can heat to the point of thermal runaway. Here, the heat of the contents exerts pressure on the battery, potentially producing an explosion.”
Tesla admits that road debris and impacts from other vehicles are a concern, where thinner battery casings can be punctured. If the battery is damaged, a short occurs. This spark can ignite the highly reactive lithium (which belongs to the alkali metal group, which contains sodium and potassium). Therefore, catching fire if something goes wrong, is in their nature.
On impact, possibly the greatest danger is that the damaged battery acts an igniter, lighting up regular flammable materials in cars such as plastics and carpet, etc. Battery University warns that when such fires occur in electric cars and vans, don’t use water to try to put out the fire:
“that’ll just add to the problem, as the higher lithium count will react with the fire. The fumes that come from a burning lithium-ion battery is mainly carbon dioxide.”
In an effort to minimize the dangers manufacturers such as Tesla rely on sophisticated smart control systems to monitor their temperature and regulate their charging and discharging.
Also, when re-charging happens too fast, lithium plates begin to form around the anode, creating a short circuit generating more heat. That heat, if it builds up, can ignite the flammable electrolyte, and you’ve got a battery fire. Jay Whitacre, a professor of materials science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, told Wired in 2015:
“There is no way to tell when buying since the catastrophic failure likely will not manifest until the battery is fully charged and discharged several times.”
Sony, the maker of the lithium-ion cells admit that occasion microscopic metal particles may come into contact with other parts of the battery cell, leading to a short circuit within the cell, triggering a fire. The other most common causes of battery fires are known as “stress events” and they include re-charging at sub-freezing temperatures and continuous vibration.
According to leading fire safety experts:
“Lithium batteries are a class D fire risk (flammable metal) and need a specialist fire extinguisher which has been specifically designed for that risk.” While lithium-ion batteries are “not a class D risk because they don’t contain lithium in a metallic form. They are actually a class A risk but with some caveats. The danger with lithium-ion battery fires is with the electrolyte in the batteries rather than the lithium salts. Every battery uses a different electrolyte solution, but many contain Fluorine, which readily combines with the hydrogen found in water used for firefighting to make Hydrogen Fluoride.” (http://argosfire.co.uk/lithium-battery-fire-fighting/ ).
Argos Fire Protection Services Ltd warns that hydrogen fluoride:
“is a highly toxic gas which can cause blindness and respiratory failure, and in aqueous form (Hydrofluoric Acid) is highly corrosive and absorbed through the skin.”
Confusingly, while lithium-ion batteries are a low risk and can be extinguished with plain water, this can cause dangerous and potentially deadly side effects.
Advocates of such ‘green’ technology are Battery University, a sock puppet for industry interests. They admit that:
“A mild short will only cause elevated self-discharge and the heat buildup is minimal because the discharging power is very low. If enough microscopic metallic particles converge on one spot, a sizable current begins to flow between the electrodes of the cell, and the spot heats up and weakens. As a small water leak in a faulty hydro dam can develop into a torrent and take a structure down, so too can heat buildup damage the insulation layer in a cell and cause an electrical short. The temperature can quickly reach 500 C (932 F), at which point the cell catches fire or it explodes. This thermal runaway that occurs is known as “venting with flame.” “Rapid disassembly” is the preferred term by the battery industry.”
In 2016 Samsung famously had to issue a major international Galaxy Note 7 recall due to exploding batteries. On September 13, 2016, Nicole Kobie (Samsung battery recall: why lithium-ion batteries catch fire) quoted Professor Clare Grey, of the University of Cambridge’s department of chemistry. Professor Grey advised:
“The source of the short circuit is likely different with these different battery incidents, but the driving force for the fires and explosions is the same.”
“The source of the fires is generally a short circuit between a highly oxidized cathode (positive electrode material) and anode (negative); this results in a very fast reaction between these two solids, which causes rapid heating,” she explains. “When the battery gets hot enough the separator, which physically separates the cathode and anode melts, and even faster heating occurs (so-called ‘thermal runaway’).”
Professor Grey adds: “The charged cathode material is not stable, and so on heating, it loses oxygen. The oxygen can then react with the organic electrolyte.” And that leads to an explosion or fire.
In short, Lithium batteries are like Bond Girls: beautiful but deadly. Lithium battery fires are mysterious to the general public; we see devices apparently catching fire spontaneously on their own. Incidents such as battery fires on Boeing jets, Tesla cars, and smartphones only reinforces this public perception.
And yet the real problem with the Big Green dream of battery-powered everything is we are leading ourselves into a false sense of accomplishment. Even if the safety issues are resolved, electric vehicles, etc. will do nothing to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere. This is because the energy stored in the battery still has to come from a mass central power generator, and global economics means that the most viable heat engine is coal.
John O’Sullivan is CEO of Principia Scientific International CIC, a registered UK non-profit that relies solely on public contributions.
Read more at PSI