E-cigarettes or electronic vaporizers are battery-powered devices that simulate tobacco smoking by producing a heated vapor. According to an October 2014 article by the U.S. Fire Administration entitled, Electronic Cigarette Fires and Explosions, E-cigarettes were first patented in 2003 and have been available for sale in the U.S. since 2007. Three years ago, there were nearly 500 brands of e-cigarettes, a number that was increasing at 10.5 brands per month. Id.
E-cigarettes contain a heating element to vaporize a liquid solution. The power source for the devices are lithium-ion batteries.
Fact #1: It’s the battery that overheats
E-cigarettes are made to use a cylindrical lithium-ion battery, which is made by winding alternating layers of metallic anode and cathode material separated by a porous film that holds a liquid electrolyte. This anode/cathode core is placed into a cylindrical metal tube through an open end, and the tube is then sealed. All of the electrolytes currently used by lithium-ion battery manufacturers are either flammable or combustible. The electrolytes are what cause fire and explosion when the battery overheats.
Fact #2: Battery failures are more dangerous in E-Cigarettes than in other E-Devices
There are many other electronic consumer devices that are powered by lithium-ion batteries. Examples include laptops, cellphones, medical devices and electric cars. Some of these devices – like the Samsung 7 and children’s hover boards – have been in the news due to battery fires. However, such fires are not nearly as explosive as e-cigarette, or more accurately, e-cigarette battery fires.
The reason is that e-cigarette batteries are housed differently than the batteries used in most other portable electronic devices. The metal tube or can in which the e-cigarette battery is housed has its weakest structural point at the ends where it is sealed. When this seal ruptures due to thermal runaway pressure inside the cylinder, there is a violent explosion. This explosion can cause the burning battery and/or container end to be propelled like a small rocket. One only has to visit YouTube and search “E Cigarette Explosion” to see what happens when this explosion occurs inside one’s pants pocket or while the consumer is holding the device.
Unlike e-cigarettes, the cylindrical lithium-ion batteries used in other electronic consumer devices are housed in rigid plastic cases that are generally strong enough to able to prevent the overheated battery from being propelled out of the device. So, while fires in these devices do occur, the fire is usually contained within the device. Alternatively, some electronic devices, like cellphones and tablets, use pouch-type batteries that are flat rather than cylindrical, and are housed in a sealed plastic case instead of a metal tube. These flat, pouch batteries will not build up much pressure and do not explode, but when they overheat the plastic pouch can burst, allowing the fire to spread beyond the device. This is why Samsung 7s are banned from airplanes.
Fact #3: Fires and Explosions can occur during charging
There is no reliable government source of data on the number of e-cigarette fires, so articles that attempt to estimate the number of fires rely on media reports. While this may be the only source of data, one must recognize that it is an inherently unreliable source, since not all instances of e-cigarette fires are covered by the media. Indeed, our firm represents clients who were burned in e-cigarette battery fires that were not covered by the media.
The 2014 U.S. Fire Administration article estimated that 80% of the incidents reported by the media occurred during charging of the battery. This percentage seems outdated considering current data reported below. Many e-cigarettes have a USB port for connecting the device to a power adapter. Some manufacturers provide charging devices with the e-cigarette and others provide nothing more than a USB cord. Adapters allow the battery to be charged in a variety of sources, including laptop and desktop computer USB ports, automobile USB ports and wall outlets. In all cases that I’ve seen, the e-cigarette or vaporizer and the battery are made in China. The written instructions that come with the device are obviously written by a person whose first language is Chinese. The instructions do not tell the consumer which USB ports are safe or dangerous to use for charging. The voltage and current supplied by USB ports can vary significantly. Subjecting the battery to a current that is higher than the current the battery can handle may lead to thermal runaway that results in fire and/or explosion.
Fact #4: The number of E-Cigarette fires and explosions is much higher than reported
Most articles on the subject cite the October 2014 U.S. Fire Administration article in which the authors found media reports of 25 incidents. As I stated above, most incidents don’t get covered by the media. Moreover, eCig One Staff posted a blog on January 7, 2017 entitled, E-Cigarette Explosions: Comprehensive List, in which they counted media and forum reports of 214 e-cigarette explosions. This number did not include numerous social media and other reports that contained insufficient information.
Fact #5: Fires and Explosions also happen during use, transport, and when the battery is stored separate from the device
With the recent popularity of different types of vaping devices, the percentage of incidents that occur while not charging has gone up. eCig One reports that of the 214 explosions:
* 57 happened during use
* 79 happened during charging
* 44 happened during transport, storage, or unknown circumstance
* 34 involved spare batteries
This blog was originally published at www.phelanpetty.com and was re-published here with permission.