Why do lithium batteries catch fire? from electric vehicles to smartphones

From exploding smartphones to electric vehicle fires, something cooks and that’s the lithium battery. But humans aim to find habitable exoplanets in space, while here on Earth basic utilitarian objects like smartphones and electric vehicles ignite spontaneously. Why does this happen? and how to mitigate the risks is what this article examines.
Li-ion Batteries have been a game changer for mankind, these compact, dense and powerful cells deliver high energy in small sizes to power anything and everything. From tiny racing drones, smartphones and electric vehicles to the James Webb Space Telescope, everything is powered by lithium-ion batteries.

Although there are other types of batteries as well, such as nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries and typical lead acid batteries, it is the power density of lithium-ion batteries that makes them popular. A typical lithium-ion battery stores up to 150 watt-hours of electricity in 1 kg of battery, a NiMH battery might hold around 100 watt-hours per kg, and the lead-acid battery around 25 watt-hours per kg.

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However, there are a few challenges with lithium batteries, firstly, they use rare earth materials like cobalt, so they are expensive. The second challenge is heating and lately, lithium-ion powered devices that catch fire are making headlines more often.

Why do lithium batteries catch fire?

Lithium batteries are sensitive to high temperatures and are inherently capable of catching fire. Heat also plays a role in a lithium-ion battery degrading faster than normal. The high density means they can also explode. However, it is usually a poor battery management system, poor design, or external issues like cell puncture that lead to violent incidents. External factors such as rising temperatures are rarely the cause of battery fires, but they can degrade battery life and performance.

Thermal runaway

Lithium-ion batteries are susceptible to “thermal runaway”, a sort of chain reaction, which is accelerated by high temperatures and releases energy in return, this excess energy further increases the temperature and the cycle continues to lead to a destructive result. In extreme cases, thermal runaway can cause batteries to explode and start fires. In minor cases, this can melt the batteries or damage them beyond repair.

In most electric vehicles we see a “cooling system”. This cooling system is only there to cool the lithium-ion batteries. Smartphones and other gadgets have much smaller capacity lithium-ion batteries than electric vehicles and therefore do not require external cooling. Smartphone batteries face issues of excessive heat possibly due to an overheating processor, structural damage from bending, damage, or overcharging.

Most cases of smartphone battery explosion or fire stem from either a poorly designed battery or physical damage. Battery design has improved over time, however, physical damage is unpredictable and can cause the battery to burst into flames. Suppose you drop your phone on a concrete sidewalk, bending the chassis a bit, while on the outside the damage would look small, on the inside the bend might puncture the battery and it would become a bomb delay. Smartphone users should also refrain from disassembling the battery component themselves. Pricking or puncturing lithium-ion batteries is dangerous and should not be attempted.

Although the latest smartphones and laptops come with adaptive charging and battery health features, it is still advisable to use chargers compatible with the devices. Devices should also never be charged in direct sunlight or high temperature areas like heaters and radiators. It is also not recommended to cover your smartphone by placing it under a pillow while charging.

Smartphone fires or explosions are very rare, in fact, they are rarer than electric vehicle fires because almost everyone uses some sort of smartphone while electric vehicle owners are rare.