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Burning Lithium Ion Batteries

I had an old Nexus 4 phone that was expanding and decided to test some of the theories about battery combustion.

The first claim that often gets made is that if the plastic seal on the outside of the battery is broken then the battery will catch fire. I tested this by cutting the battery with a craft knife. With every cut the battery sparked a bit and then when I levered up layers of the battery (it seems to be multiple flat layers of copper and black stuff inside the battery) there were more sparks. The battery warmed up, it’s plausible that in a confined environment that could get hot enough to set something on fire. But when the battery was resting on a brick in my backyard that wasn’t going to happen.

The next claim is that a Li-Ion battery fire will be increased with water. The first thing to note is that Li-Ion batteries don’t contain Lithium metal (the Lithium high power non-rechargeable batteries do). Lithium metal will seriously go off it exposed to water. But lots of other Lithium compounds will also react vigorously with water (like Lithium oxide for example). After cutting through most of the center of the battery I dripped some water in it. The water boiled vigorously and the corners of the battery (which were furthest away from the area I cut) felt warmer than they did before adding water. It seems that significant amounts of energy are released when water reacts with whatever is inside the Li-Ion battery. The reaction was probably giving off hydrogen gas but didn’t appear to generate enough heat to ignite hydrogen (which is when things would really get exciting). Presumably if a battery was cut in the presence of water while in an enclosed space that traps hydrogen then the sparks generated by the battery reacting with air could ignite hydrogen generated from the water and give an exciting result.

It seems that a CO2 fire extinguisher would be best for a phone/tablet/laptop fire as that removes oxygen and cools it down. If that isn’t available then a significant quantity of water will do the job, water won’t stop the reaction (it can prolong it), but it can keep the reaction to below 100C which means it won’t burn a hole in the floor and the range of toxic chemicals released will be reduced.

The rumour that a phone fire on a plane could do a “China syndrome” type thing and melt through the Aluminium body of the plane seems utterly bogus. I gave it a good try and was unable to get a battery to burn through it’s plastic and metal foil case. A spare battery for a laptop in checked luggage could be a major problem for a plane if it ignited. But a battery in the passenger area seems unlikely to be a big problem if plenty of water is dumped on it to prevent the plastic case from burning and polluting the air.

I was not able to get a result that was even worthy of a photograph. I may do further tests with laptop batteries.

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