Why Do Lithium-Ion Batteries Explode?
Most of us can’t go an hour without using a lithium-ion battery. They’re in our smartphones, laptops, electric and hybrid vehicles, wireless headphones, activity trackers, and e-cigarettes.
Unfortunately, lithium-ion batteries also pose safety hazards to users, and the problem seems to be getting worse over time. Often, when a battery explodes or catches fire, the user suffers serious injuries. In this article, we’ll discuss how you can protect yourself from battery fires and explosions and explain what you should do if you’ve been injured.
Lithium-Ion Battery Fires Seem to Be Increasingly Common
Since Sony introduced the mass-marketed lithium-ion battery in 1991, we have become increasingly reliant on the energy that these batteries provide. In fact, it’s almost impossible to avoid them today unless you give up using a mobile phone, a laptop, and any wireless devices. And lithium-ion batteries are a constant presence for people of all ages: they’re in all sorts of electronic toys and other products aimed at children.
Manufacturers and users like lithium-ion batteries because they’re inexpensive, efficient, small, and increasingly powerful. However, reports of battery-related fires and explosions are on the rise, and the injuries that some victims have suffered are extremely serious.
Most of us will thankfully never experience a battery fire or explosion. But the number of injuries and recalls involving lithium-ion batteries should give all consumers cause for concern:
- Between 2017 and 2018, Hewlett-Packard recalled more than 150,000 laptops due to defective lithium-ion batteries.
- In 2017, manufacturers recalled more than 500,000 hoverboards after their batteries started catching fire.
- In 2016, Samsung recalled roughly one million Galaxy Note7 smartphones due to a defective battery design that created a fire hazard.
- In 2006, Sony recalled 9.6 million lithium-ion batteries for safety reasons.
- In 2018, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced it was investigating reports of battery-related fires in aviation technologies and devices.
- R.J. Reynolds Vapor Co. recalled all of its 2.6 million Vuse Vibe e-cigarette power units due to malfunctioning lithium-ion batteries that were a fire risk.
While these are some of the most high-profile recalls and investigations, there have been numerous others.
What Makes a Lithium-Ion Battery Explode?
Lithium-ion batteries are inherently hazardous because they contain highly flammable solvents. The batteries include two electrodes, one made of lithium cobalt oxide and another made of graphite, which are separated by a thin plastic film. The flammable solvents in the batteries help transport ions from one electrode to the other, creating energy. However, if there are any problems with the thin plastic film, these solvents can combine to cause heat in a process called thermal runaway. This heat can in turn create pressure and eventually lead to a fire or explosion.
So why do some lithium-ion batteries explode or catch fire while most never do? The answer is that there can be many different reasons. Some of these reasons are related to design and manufacturing issues while others are due to error and misconduct on the part of users.
Possible causes of lithium-ion battery fires and explosions include:
- Battery designers can make mistakes when creating new battery systems, increasing the likelihood of a short circuit.
- Product designers may make technical errors that put users at risk or fail to include adequate safety mechanisms.
- Manufacturers sometimes cut corners and create poorly-built batteries to reduce costs.
- Generic or off-brand charging cords can send too much current to batteries, causing fires or explosions.
- Users can damage or misuse the devices or batteries, increasing the likelihood that they will short-circuit.
While the companies that manufacture and distribute lithium-ion batteries and electronic devices like to blame users for most fires and explosions, the evidence suggests that many battery fires are caused by design and manufacturing defects.
Are Batteries Getting More Dangerous?
Electronics manufacturers are constantly pressuring battery companies to design smaller, cheaper, and more powerful lithium-ion batteries. To achieve these goals, battery companies have made the plastic film between the two electrodes even thinner. The resulting tiny, low-cost batteries are fragile and highly flammable.
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Sometimes, the design of the device will also contribute to the severity of the explosion or fire. For example, e-cigarette fires tend to be especially serious because an e-cigarette’s thin, tube-shaped body works to concentrate heat and pressure but doesn’t have the strength to withstand these forces. This can cause the battery to eject out of the tube and shoot across the room like a hot missile. In comparison, the rigid plastic or metal body of a laptop can usually contain the pressure from an overheating battery, which is why laptops tend to set on fire rather than explode.
E-Cigarette Batteries Pose Serious Safety Risks
The risks involved with e-cigarette batteries extend beyond their design issues. Many e-cigarette batteries, especially low-cost replacement batteries, are poorly made and improperly designed. The product liability team at Phelan Petty has seen documented cases of:
- Counterfeit batteries that do not meet safety standards
- Defective batteries that the original manufacturer rejected but were then re-wrapped and sold on the secondary market
- Off-brand batteries that were made cheaply and quickly, but with little attention to consumer safety
However, while you can’t protect yourself from every defective e-cigarette battery, there are ways to minimize your risk of an e-cigarette explosion.
For example, always use the charger that came with your e-cigarette and don’t switch it out for a third-party USB charger. The United States Fire Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) both report that using a “non-approved power adapter” can subject an e-cigarette to a higher level of voltage than it can tolerate, causing a fire or explosion.
The FDA and CPSC are also working on new safety guidelines for e-cigarette batteries and power systems. The personal injury lawyers at Phelan Petty are carefully monitoring this regulatory process. Contact us for the most up-to-date information about federal e-cigarette battery rules.
How Can I Protect Myself from Lithium-Ion Battery Fires and Explosions?
Until engineers design low-cost, safe alternatives to lithium-ion batteries, we’re unlikely to see them decrease in popularity. In the meantime, you should follow these simple tips to protect your personal safety and your rights.
Look for UL-Certified Devices
Underwriting Labs is an organization that tests the safety of electronic devices. If a device is UL-certified, that means it has passed a series of rigorous safety tests. While it’s not an absolute guarantee of safety, a UL certification can give you an added sense of security.
Unfortunately, some dishonest companies fraudulently claim their devices are UL-approved. When in doubt, confirm the product’s UL certification by visiting the UL website.
Take Precautions When a Battery Overheats or Hisses
If you hear a battery hissing or sputtering, or if you notice that the battery is overheating or bulging, take immediate safety precautions. Put the device on a non-flammable surface, preferably outside and away from other people and buildings.
If the device catches fire, call 911 immediately. While you can use water to extinguish a small lithium-ion battery fire, that won’t be enough to extinguish a fire in the larger battery of an electric or hybrid vehicle. You’ll need to use a Class D fire extinguisher or let the authorities take care of the fire.
Avoid Using a Modified or Damaged Electronic Device
If you know that someone made aftermarket modifications to an electronic device that contains a lithium-ion battery, or if the device has been damaged, you shouldn’t use it. Damage and modifications can compromise the protective film in a lithium-ion battery, leading to a short circuit. Additionally, the structural integrity of the device might be compromised. This could limit the device’s ability to withstand the pressure of a battery fire and increase the risk of an explosion.
Don’t Throw Out the Device After the Fire
If your device suddenly sets on fire or explodes, don’t throw it away. It’s virtually impossible to win a product liability case without the actual device. Your attorney will need to get expert witnesses who can examine the device in question and determine whether there were design or manufacturing defects. Your attorney can store the battery safely so you don’t have to worry about it again.
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Consult an Experienced Product Liability Lawyer
After a serious lithium-ion battery fire, you should immediately contact a product liability lawyer who has experience handling cases involving lithium-ion battery fires and explosions. These claims are highly technical, and they require a sophisticated analysis, expert witnesses, and thorough investigation. It’s incredibly difficult for the average person to fully develop a product liability claim, assess its worth, and negotiate with the insurance companies on their own.
Phelan Petty: Experienced Fire and Explosion Lawyers
The product liability attorneys at Phelan Petty have successfully fought for justice and compensation on behalf of the victims who have suffered catastrophic injuries in fires and explosions caused by lithium-ion batteries. We use cutting-edge litigation strategies, consult with respected experts, and stand up to big corporations and their insurance companies on behalf of our clients.
To get a free assessment of your case from one of our product liability attorneys, simply complete our online form or call us at 804-980-7100.
Allen, S.J. (2016, September 21). Why lithium-ion batteries still explode, and what’s being done to fix the problem. Consumer Reports. Retrieved from https://www.consumerreports.org/safety-recalls/why-lithium-ion-batteries-still-explode-and-whats-being-done-to-fix-the-problem/
Wolverton, T. (2016, October 26). Lithium battery dangers mean Samsung recall won’t be last. Mercury News. Retrieved from https://www.mercurynews.com/2016/10/14/wolverton-lithium-battery-dangers-mean-samsung-recall-wont-be-last/
The content provided here is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject.
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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.