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Fires and Explosions? The Facts About Lithium Ion Batteries

Lithium Ion Batteries

Tech devices are supposed to make your life easier. Now you have to worry about them exploding in your pocket or setting your house on fire?!

At the beginning of the month, Samsung announced it was recalling its Galaxy 7 Note model (which meant replacing 2.5 million smartphones), after at least 35 reports of spontaneous fires. Before that, earlier this year, hoverboards were all over the news, after causing a reported 60 fires that resulted in $2 million of property damage. In February, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission officially declared the boards were unsafe due to fire risk, and then in July, announced a recall that applied to many of the most popular models.

In all of these cases of spontaneously combusting smartphones and hoverboards, the culprit has been overheating lithium ion batteries, which have also caused laptop, jet, and electric car fires in the past.

What are these batteries, why are we still using them if they’re dangerous, and can you avoid them? Here’s what you need to know:

battery basics

Lithium ion batteries are likely present in many of the devices you use on a regular basis. They’re the go-to for modern technology, since they’re small and can be recharged over and over.

Lithium is used because it’s an element that has high electrochemical potential, meaning it can produce a lot of energy at a low atomic weight (AKA tiny & powerful). But that highly reactive nature also makes it more volatile and flammable.

Hoverboards: Lithium Ion Batteries

heating up

Technically, all batteries have the potential to go up in flames, thanks to a phenomenon called “thermal runaway”, in which too much heat causes the cells to break open and sets off a chain reaction of other cells rupturing. Lithium ion batteries are particularly susceptible to this, but if they’re designed properly, neighboring cells in the battery are insulated from the heat, in most cases preventing that chain reaction.


so what should i do?

Here’s the good news: Despite the scary news reports, lithium ion batteries are statistically very safe. They’re ubiquitously present in all kinds of devices—laptops, iPods, smartphones—which rarely malfunction; it’s just that when they do malfunction, fiery explosions tend to get attention. (One estimate puts the numbers at 2 or 3 per million causing a problem, which is six decimal points below one percent.)

The hoverboard problems were major because it was a new category of product primarily being manufactured overseas, with no oversight in terms of safety standards.

Takeaway: Stick to purchasing electronics from trusted companies that are subject to US consumer safety standards, and pay attention to news of recalls, so when there is an issue, you can quickly stop using the device if you own it.

In the meantime, it’s not worth sweating over. You’re way more likely to start a grease fire in your kitchen, so maybe focus on your cooking skills, instead.

Have you or someone you know been the victim of an exploding lithium ion battery? Share your experiences in the comments!

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