Fire Safety Science

How Do Lithium-Ion Battery Fires Work?

April 3, 2023 | Fire Safety Science 

The Basics of Clean Agent Systems

Lithium-ion batteries are ubiquitous in our daily lives, powering a range of devices, from smartphones and laptops to electric vehicles and energy storage systems for renewable energy sources. However, these batteries can pose a significant fire risk, with the potential to cause injury, property damage, and environmental harm. In this article, we will explore the causes of lithium-ion fires, the associated risks, and the measures that can be taken to prevent them, including the use of clean agent fire suppression systems.

How Lithium-Ion Fires Happen

Lithium-ion batteries function by transferring ions between a cathode and an anode with the help of an electrolyte. When working correctly, they are relatively safe. However, if a lithium-ion battery experiences damage or an electrical fault, it can cause a thermal runaway reaction, leading to a fire or explosion.

There are several factors that can cause a lithium-ion battery to become damaged, which increases the risk of a fire. These factors include physical damage from an impact or puncture, overcharging or over-discharging, exposure to high temperatures, or short-circuiting. When a battery is damaged, the flammable electrolyte can leak and react with the air, leading to ignition. Overcharging can cause the battery to generate too much heat, leading to the breakdown of the electrolyte and the release of flammable gases.

In commercial and industrial applications, such as energy storage systems for renewable energy sources and backup power for critical infrastructure, lithium-ion batteries are often much larger than those used in consumer electronics. These batteries usually comprise several smaller cells that are connected together to form a larger battery system. If one of these cells becomes damaged, it can cause a thermal runaway reaction that leads to a fire or explosion. For example, a single cell that is overcharged, over-discharged, or exposed to high temperatures can become damaged and cause a chain reaction that can quickly spread to the other cells in the battery system.

Furthermore, large-scale lithium-ion battery systems used in commercial and industrial applications often have complex cooling and thermal management systems. If these systems fail, the batteries can overheat, leading to a thermal runaway reaction and a fire.

To mitigate the risk of lithium-ion battery fires, it is essential to properly handle and store them. Additionally, clean agent fire suppression systems can help prevent and extinguish fires caused by lithium-ion batteries as discussed below.

The Risks Associated with Lithium-Ion Fires

Lithium-ion fires are extremely dangerous and can cause significant harm due to the high heat output and toxic gases that they emit. These fires can spread rapidly, causing extensive property damage and loss of life. In industrial and commercial settings, the risks are particularly high, and it is crucial not to underestimate the potential consequences for people, property, and the environment.

First and foremost, lithium-ion batteries have the potential to release a large amount of heat energy during a fire, which can cause battery cells to rupture and release toxic chemicals and gases. In enclosed spaces, the inhalation of these toxic fumes can lead to severe health risks.

Secondly, lithium-ion fires can lead to explosions, which can cause significant damage to property and pose a risk to people in the vicinity. For instance, in 2018, a lithium-ion battery energy storage system at a facility in Belgium caught fire and resulted in a series of explosions, necessitating the evacuation of the area and resulting in significant damage to the facility.

Thirdly, lithium-ion fires can have significant environmental impacts, especially in areas with limited water resources. These batteries contain chemicals, such as lithium, cobalt, and nickel, which can be harmful to the environment. In the event of a fire, these chemicals may contaminate the soil and water, causing significant damage to local ecosystems.

Fourthly, lithium-ion fires can result in substantial financial losses, especially in industrial and commercial settings. Replacing battery systems, repairing property damage, and compensating employees and customers for losses can be expensive and have long-term financial implications.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), lithium-ion batteries were involved in 6% of all reported residential fires in the United States between 2014 and 2016. In 2018 alone, the NFPA estimated that there were around 2,500 lithium-ion battery fires reported in the US, resulting in 400 civilian injuries, 10 firefighter injuries, and $82 million in property damage.

Commercial and Industrial Applications

Lithium-ion batteries are widely used in various industrial and commercial applications due to their high energy density and long cycle life. These applications include energy storage systems, transportation, consumer electronics, medical devices, aerospace, and marine systems.

In recent years, the use of lithium-ion batteries in these applications has increased significantly due to the need for cleaner, more sustainable energy sources and advances in battery technology. However, these batteries also pose significant risks, as seen in the data discussed earlier.

For example, in 2019, a lithium-ion battery energy storage system at an Arizona Public Service facility caught fire, causing an explosion and resulting in eight firefighters being injured. In 2018, a lithium-ion battery energy storage system at a facility in Belgium caught fire, leading to an evacuation of the surrounding area.

Fire Suppression Methods For Li-Ion Fires

When it comes to suppressing lithium-ion fires, traditional water-based firefighting methods are generally not effective, as they can actually exacerbate the situation by spreading the fire or causing the battery to explode due to thermal shock.

Clean agent fire suppression systems are often recommended for suppressing lithium-ion fires in industrial and commercial applications. These systems use a combination of gas and chemical agents that do not conduct electricity, do not damage equipment, and do not harm the environment. Clean agent systems work by quickly releasing a gas or chemical agent into the area where the fire is occurring, which then reacts with the fire to extinguish it.

There are several types of clean agent fire suppression systems that can be used for lithium-ion fires, including:

Inert gas suppression systems: These systems use inert gases, such as nitrogen or argon, to suppress fires by reducing the oxygen levels in the area where the fire is occurring.

Chemical suppression systems: These systems use chemicals, such as Chemori227™ (HFC-227ea), or CO2, to suppress fires by interrupting the chemical chain reaction that sustains the fire.

Hybrid suppression systems: These systems use a combination of both inert gases and chemical agents to suppress fires.

Clean agent fire suppression systems are a highly effective way to suppress lithium-ion fires in industrial and commercial applications. They are designed to quickly detect and suppress fires before they can spread and cause significant damage. It is important for businesses to work with a qualified fire protection company to design and install the appropriate clean agent system for their specific needs. Regular maintenance and inspection of these systems are also essential to ensure they are functioning properly in case of an emergency.

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