In September of 2017, the energy company Tesla will unveil an all-electric semi-truck powered by a battery. I found it interesting that something as massive as a freightliner could run on a battery. What was science fiction a decade ago is now reality due to technological advances. The same batteries that power our phones, laptops, and cameras are and will be playing a vital role in our transportation and manufacturing processes. This is a good thing as it serves to lessen our dependence upon fossil fuels, steering us towards more sustainable sources of energy that are better for the environment. While they offer great promise, batteries store large amounts of energy and, as such, have their own hazards. More and more events related to battery hazards are occurring like fire, explosions, and release of toxic materials. As lithium batteries become more prevalent in society, it is important for risk management professionals, safety personnel, and insurance professionals to be aware of these hazards and associated controls/risk management techniques to mitigate them.
While the focus of this blog is on Lithium-ion batteries, the guidelines below can be used for most types, though there may be minor differences in temperature storage ranges.
Most battery fires occur when the outer casing is punctured. This is because of the battery’s design. Batteries are designed to produce high output at minimal weight. This translates into thin partitions between cells and a thin outer covering. A puncture can cause electrolyte material to escape or short-circuit. The accompanying spark can ignite the highly reactive lithium. In severe cases, it can cause an explosion. Here are some things to remember when handling a battery:
- Do not disassemble or modify the battery in any way. Modification increases the risk of explosion and should be done by qualified professionals.
- Only carry lithium-ion batteries in containers that are specially designed for transport and follow D.O.T guidelines.
- Do not carry batteries near necklaces, hairpins, tools, or other metal objects, as these may pierce the casing.
- Avoid overcharging batteries. Modern devices have shut-off circuits that stop the charging process once it is full. However, with older devices it is necessary to shut them off because the battery could overheat and possibly burn. It’s best to consult the owner’s manual for information on safe charging practices.
- In some cases, issues can occur due to a faulty battery. If a recall notice is issued for your device, discontinue its use and follow the manufacturer’s recall instructions immediately.
- Do not store at extremely high or low temperatures. The recommended storage temperature for most batteries is 15°C (59°F); the extreme allowable temperature is -40°C to 50°C (-40°C to 122°F) for most chemistries.
- Do not place the battery in direct sunshine, or store the battery inside cars in significantly hot or cold weather.
- When storing large quantities of batteries, avoid congregating them in one confined area. In the event of the fire, this will help with containment by depriving the fire of its fuel source. If the building has a sprinkler system, this will allow the water curtain to keep it from spreading.
Correctly disposing of a battery is important to prevent the release of environmentally harmful substances into the environment.
- Batteries for commercial use should be in a discharged condition prior to their disposal. Generally, a primary lithium cell is considered to be discharged once its voltage reaches 2 volts or less under a current of C/100 (C is the rated capacity of the battery in ampere-hours).
- Incineration is not recommended. However, if such services are needed it should be done at a properly permitted facility that can handle this type of waste. Contact your waste handler if you are unsure whether a facility can handle the batteries.
- For home disposal, many stores offer free recycling of rechargeable batteries. If there is no outlet available in your area, it is safe to dispose of these batteries in your regular trash. As always, check the laws in your area to make sure that this is acceptable.
Batteries are the future and no longer regulated to personal devices. They will become a vital part of manufacturing, storage, and transportation. While incidents of battery fires have gotten more attention in news, they are no more common than fires that occur from ignition of fossil fuels and natural gas. Practicing proper handling, storage, and disposal can mitigate the risk.
Ufran, Umair. “Battery Fires Reveal Risk of Storing Large Amounts of Energy.” https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/. Scientific American, 30 Nov. 2011. Web. 19 May 2017. <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/battery-fires-risks-storing-lareg-amounts-energy/ >.
“How to Store Batteries.” Battery University. N.p., 04 Apr. 2017. Web. 19 Nov. 2017. < http://batteryuniversity.com/learn/article/how_to_store_batteries>.