All About Lithium-Ion Explosions

Posted on Monday, May 7th, 2018 at 5:31 pm    

Earlier this year, HP recalled more than 50,000 laptops due to overheating and melting lithium-ion batteries. A year earlier, Samsung dealt with a PR nightmare when many of their new Galaxy Note 7 phones were catching fire due to faulty lithium-ion batteries. They had to issue a recall not once, but twice due to a design failure in the first batch and a manufacturing defect in the replacement batch.

Lithium-ion batteries have been some of the most commonly used batteries for decades. They power our household gadgets, electric cars and even some jumbo jets. Despite the explosive incidents of the last two years, they’re mostly safe. In fact, you probably handle one almost every day.

But the question remains: What is it about lithium-ion batteries that causes them to melt and catch fire? Is there a risk for another major battery mishap in the future? It turns out, the lithium-ion battery design, while ingenious, inherently has the potential to fail and cause a dangerous accident.

Why Do Some Explode?

There are different reasons lithium-ion batteries have been known to short circuit and even cause a fire. Before understanding why, it’s important to first conceptualize how they work.

Inside each lithium-ion battery is a positively charged cathode and a negatively charged anode. The two electrodes store large quantities of energy and are separated by only a thin microperforated piece of plastic containing liquid electrolyte. As batteries become more powerful and take up less space, the separator becomes smaller, yet it carries more responsibility.

When the battery is being used, lithium ions flow from negative to positive. When it’s being charged, the ions flow from positive to negative. Keeping the anode and cathode separated while ions are traveling between the two is crucial for ensuring the battery is not only working properly, but also for preventing short circuiting and a process called thermal runaway from occurring.

Thermal runaway occurs when separation between electrodes is breached. When the electrodes touch, the chemicals inside the battery begin to heat up, sometimes reaching up to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. This extreme battery temperature causes the flammable electrolyte to ignite and even explode.

This design flaw caused some Samsung Galaxy Note 7s to catch fire in 2017, as the batteries were designed with insufficient separation between the two electrodes. When the battery was charging, it would expand very slightly and the two electrodes would bend and touch near the corner of the battery, causing the battery modules to overheat in just milliseconds, which would result in a short circuit and subsequent thermal runaway.

Other Reasons for Thermal Runaway

Two electrodes touching isn’t the only reason a lithium-ion battery will potentially explode or catch fire. Other reasons include:

  • Extreme temperatures – If your battery is caught in a fire or left too close to an extreme heat source it can cause the battery to overheat and potentially combust.
  • Battery damage – If the battery is dropped and the impact causes the separator to break, the electrodes could touch and cause short circuiting and overheating.
  • Charger defects – This is rare, but poorly designed chargers can damage lithium-ion batteries due to short circuiting. In some cases, overcharging can cause overheating.

What Action is Being Taken?

Despite the potential for continued issues and evidence of design flaws in the past, lithium-ion batteries aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Rather than move on, engineers are working on ways to improve lithium-ion batteries and reduce the risk for overheating and thermal runaway. For example, more rugged polymer separators that have a higher melting point and advanced electrolytes that won’t catch fire when they mix with oxygen are in the works, according to ConsumerReport.org.

While lithium-ion will continue to be the standard for the foreseeable future, some believe solid-state batteries may provide a safer alternative eventually. These batteries forgo liquid electrolyte in favor of much-less flammable solid electrolyte. Similarly, magnesium-ion and lithium-air batteries have shown potential, but are still years away from being a realistic option.

Have You Been Injured Due to a Defective Product?

While the potential battery improvements on the horizon are noteworthy, and the carefully-worded statements and recalls released by companies like Samsung and HP are admirable, neither can make up for an injury caused by a faulty or poorly designed battery, especially if it leads to expensive medical bills or lost wages.

If you or a family were injured due to a defective product or negligence of any kind, you may be entitled to financial compensation. The attorneys at Farris, Riley & Pitt, LLP have been helping their clients receive the justice they deserve since 1996. Contact us today for a FREE case evaluation by calling (205) 324-1212.

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