Heading into cold weather season, fire danger typically increases, sometimes in unexpected ways, including the lithium-ion batteries used to power micromobility devices.
Earlier this month, at least 38 people were injured, some of them critically, in a Manhattan, NYC high-rise apartment building fire that started when a lithium-ion battery powering a micromobility device self-combusted. According to FDNY Chief Fire Marshal Daniel Flynn, the blaze was one of more than 130 that have occurred in the city this year related to lithium-ion batteries from micromobility devices. Flynn said the fires from lithium-ion batteries start without warning and are so intense that nearby combustibles will soon catch on fire.
According to FDNY, more than 100 fires were caused by e-bikes in the city in 2021, resulting in 79 injuries and four fatalities. Five people have died in lithium-ion related fires in 2022, including a 5-year-old girl who died in a fire sparked by charging an electric scooter.
What are lithium-ion batteries?
Lithium-ion batteries use lithium in ionic form instead of solid metallic form, are usually rechargeable, and are commonly used to power mobile phones, laptops, tablets, cameras, power tools, and micromobility devices such as electric bikes and scooters. Lithium metal batteries are usually non-rechargeable and may be used to power watches, calculators, temperature monitors, car key fobs, flashlights, and defibrillators.
Lithium-ion batteries are typically constructed in one of three ways, including:
- Pouch cells. The anodes, cathodes, and other battery components rest in a flexible foil pouch with relatively little protection against puncture.
- Prismatic lithium-ion cells. Although hard plastic or metal shell protects the battery components, puncture is still relatively easy.
- Cylindrical cell batteries. The anodes and cathodes are in thin sheets rolled together and packaged into a metal cylinder, making them much harder to puncture than prismatic or pouch batteries.
While lithium-ion batteries are generally considered safe, they have the potential to cause great injury if they have design defects, are made of inferior materials, were assembled incorrectly, or are being used, recharged, or stored improperly. Damage to lithium batteries can happen immediately or over time.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), physical damage to lithium-ion batteries can occur if they are:
- Dropped, crushed, or punctured
- Exposed to high temperatures, (above 130°F), open flames, heaters, etc.)
- Are charged in an environment that is below freezing (32°F) leading to permanent metallic lithium buildup (plating) on the anode
- Charged against the manufacturer’s instructions
To prevent injuries associated with accidents involving lithium-ion batteries, the National Fire Protection Association recommends that users always follow the manufacturer’s instructions regarding storage, use, charging, and maintenance. Certain manufacturer-authorized chargers will cycle on and off before the battery is completely charged to avoid overcharging. However, since ultra-fast chargers don’t typically cycle power, they should not be used to charge lithium-ion batteries unless the manufacturer’s instructions recommend them. Lithium-ion batteries should always be removed from the charger once they are fully charged, and should be stored in a cool, dry location away from exit doors or anything that might catch fire.
When installing lithium-ion batteries, they should be inspected for signs of damage like bulging, cracking, hissing, leaking, escalating temperature, and smoking. If any of these signs are present, the battery and device should be placed in an area away from flammable materials. Lithium-ion batteries should never be thrown away in the trash – recycling them at a battery recycling location is recommended.
Why do micromobility devices use lithium-ion batteries?
Lithium-ion batteries are frequently used in micromobility devices like e-bikes and scooters because they are lightweight, making them lighter to lift and easier to travel with. Although they need to be handled with care to avoid damage, they are typically safe when packaged in a hard case.
Lithium-ion batteries pack a lot of power in a small package. They have a high energy-density rate, meaning they are highly reactive and will store more energy per weight then other batteries. They contain two types of electrodes: a cathode and an anode, with a substance called polypropylene separating the two. However, since the battery is small, the protective layer is also small, and if the cathode and anode accidentally touch, the flammable liquid inside may ignite and cause the temperature to rise to more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The extreme heat will cause the pressure to build up and the battery to explode, leading to severe burn injuries.
What should I do if my lithium-ion battery is damaged?
If a pouch or prismatic lithium-ion battery gets punctured, you must get away immediately, as these types are liable to catch fire quickly. You should alert the fire department if possible, and if no fire has erupted after 24 hours or you’ve contained a small one, you can safely remove the battery from your electrical system. If you puncture a cylindrical cell, remove the punctured cylindrical cell from your electrical system with caution as soon as you can, placing it where a fire won’t spread in case it ignites.
In the event of a lithium-ion battery fire, it should immediately be put out with water, halon (a clean agent that evaporates quickly leaving no residue), or halon replacement. When the fire is out, the remaining lithium cells must be cooled by pouring water over the battery to stop a further increase in temperature. Ice should not be used, and the battery should not be covered with water because this will trap heat. Once the fire is out, do not try to pick up the device or serious injury could result.
Everyone has the right to safely use battery-powered devices and to trust that lithium-ion batteries are free of defects. When this doesn’t happen and someone suffers injury, a personal injury attorney experienced with product liability cases can help.
If you sustained an injury caused by a malfunctioning lithium-ion battery, you need an experienced lawyer on your side. Call Phelan Petty in Richmond or submit our contact form to set up a free initial consultation. Proudly serving the injured in Virginia.
Michael Phelan is a Virginia trial attorney who practices with a special focus on traumatic brain injury (TBI) cases, pharmaceutical and medical device claims, product liability cases, and truck accidents. Michael’s peers have consistently recognized him for his excellence as a trial lawyer, and his clients have praised him for his commitment to deep research, his outstanding communication skills, and his sincerity and dedication.