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Lithium-Ion Batteries: How to Overcome Current and Future Safety Challenges

Mar 20, 2024
EV battery pack on a production line equipped with robot arms inside a modern factory

Lithium-ion batteries have helped usher in incredible technological advances from smartphones to electric vehicles — but they carry dangers other batteries don’t. As these batteries become more ubiquitous, safety professionals must understand how to handle them safely now and into the future.

ASSP's Engineering, Environmental and Fire Protection practice specialties brought together a panel of experts to discuss the challenges of using, storing and disposing of these batteries. They included:

  • Greg Bordner, P.E. CSP, CPE, is a senior hazmat engineer with Toyota Motor North America.
  • Chris Butts, P.E., ARM, is a licensed fire protection engineer and code consultant, AVP and property risk control Specialist with Sompo.
  • Mark Hansen, P.E., CSP, CPEA, CPSA, CPE, FASSP, is senior manager of ESH CH-TRU at N3B Los Alamos.
  • Lawrence Schulze, Ph.D., P.E., CPE, is director of the process safety certificate program and an associate professor at the University of Houston.

Have a Plan for Extinguishing Fires

Lithium-ion batteries can produce large fires quickly, so it’s essential to have a fire protection system in place in areas where batteries are used or stored. “We’re really trying to control that thermal runaway and get that temperature down,” Schulze says, “and water is the best way to do that.”

Water is the most appropriate fire extinguishing option because it is both widely available and inexpensive, Butts says. However, extinguishing lithium-ion fires typically requires copious amounts of water, so there may be locations and situations where that isn’t possible.

NFPA’s Standard for the Installation of Stationary Energy Storage Systems (855, Section C.5.1) recognizes carbon dioxide fire suppression systems, water spray fixed systems, water mist fire protection systems, clean agent systems and fixed aerosol fire extinguishing systems, but they’re not preferred, Butts says, adding that foam systems should be avoided. “These types of systems deal more with the flame and not the heat and that’s really the larger issue,” Butts says.

Ensure Charging Stations Meet Standards

With growing demand for lithium-ion batteries and associated products like charging stations,  new companies and products are popping up in the marketplace. Safety professionals need to investigate whether the products are UL Listed, Hansen says, noting it’s more common than you may think to find unlisted products.

His laboratory was looking to purchase charging stations, but discovered they were not UL Listed because the company was rushing to market. Hansen’s team even identified hazards the developer missed, which they subsequently fixed before they got UL Listed and put the stations on the market. 

Purchasers should also consider several ANSI/UL consensus standards when selecting products. “There are plenty of UL and ANSI standards to help you determine if a charging station meets requirements to ensure safe and proper wiring, and that’s really key,” Hansen says. “If you don’t have one that’s UL Listed, you are going to be at risk.”

Best Practices for Safely Charging and Storing Electric Vehicles

From individuals to organizations, as people switch to electric vehichles (EVs), they are creating new hazards they may not realize. “What we’re hearing in the industry as far as EV fires goes, the frequency is low, but the severity is high,” Butts says. 

Butts and Hansen offer some best practices for charging and storing EVs:

  1. Ensure the charging equipment is appropriately wired, tested and inspected by qualified personnel.
  2. Use only the charging equipment provided by the manufacturer or equipment specifically outlined by the manufacturer.
  3. Early fire warning and detection is vital, particularly for EVs in personal garages.
  4. Do not charge an EV from a non-grounded outlet. Hansen adds that you might be surprised at the number of outlets, particularly in homes, that are not sufficiently grounded. Charging an EV requires a ton of power: It is equivalent to plugging in 25 refrigerators, Hansen says.
  5. Do not go near charging stations with bare feet or wet footwear (think about boots slick with snow) because you can get shocked, particularly if the vehicle rests on a metal lift.
  6. Check to ensure your building is up to local building and fire codes. Many older buildings may have met previous codes, but as codes are updated, buildings could fall out of compliance with the introduction of new higher hazards such as lithium-ion batteries and/or EVs. Before considering an EV program, Schulze recommends that you explore the costs of permitting and bringing your building up to code.

The process becomes more complex if you’re plugging an EV or EVs into a building with solar panels.

Beware of Potentially Damaged Batteries

With EVs especially, batteries may not look damaged even when they are, creating greater risk for fires. Butts says he’s heard from firefighters who respond to a fender bender incident involving an EV only to respond to a fire in that same EV days or weeks later.

Understand the Rules for Shipping

Several criteria govern how you ship lithium-ion batteries, whether they are individual or contained and packed with equipment, Bordner says.

The size of the battery, which encompasses physical dimensions, weight and energy capacity, has important implications on shipping and is determined by Watt-hours (Wh). Small batteries — those whose size equals or is less than 100 Wh for batteries and 20 Wh for cells — qualify for certain exceptions from regulatory requirements.

When purchasing lithium-ion batteries, the most important standard to understand is section 38.3 of the UN Manual of Tests and Criteria. It governs transportation testing for lithium-ion batteries and cells. Nearly all lithium-ion batteries must pass this test, so it’s important that any company shipping you batteries meets this standard. 

Recycling Requires Advanced Planning

Disposing of dead lithium-ion batteries like you would any other garbage creates a few problems. If they are not handled and disposed of correctly, they can catch on fire. They also contain the heavy metal cobalt, which can leach out into groundwater and is toxic in high doses. Finally, cobalt and lithium are considered critical minerals that require energy to mine and manufacture, so disposing of them wastes unrecoverable minerals.

Organizations are still grappling with how to recycle larger batteries, sometimes burying them or simply storing them in the open, but both methods present environmental drawbacks. They’re difficult to recycle: You have to find a qualified e-waste recycler, which tend to be rare and expensive, Schulze says. As a result, 95% of lithium-ion batteries end up in the landfill system. For smaller batteries, the EPA recommends using this search engine to find qualified recyclers.

Looking to the Future: Beyond Lithium-Ion

While the growth in lithium-ion batteries continues, other types of chemistries for batteries are being investigated, Butts says, referencing a Louisiana State University group that is testing an ammonium-ion battery that appears to be safer, lighter, more affordable and even biodegradable. Manganese oxide and phosphate batteries are being researched to replace cobalt as well, Schulze adds.

“A lot of work is being done at a lot of different universities to look at alternatives to lithium-ion batteries,” Schulze says.




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