HSE Hidden Hazards of Lithium-Ion Batteries

Written by Jenny Sharwood OAM, FRACI CChem

Published 29 August 2022

This event was attended by twenty five guests, whose backgrounds ranged from fire engineering to other branches of engineering to chemistry and chemistry education to business and marketing. 

Our first speaker was Emma Sutcliffe from EV Fire safe. All of us who attended were shocked to the core by the end of her speech! 

Some of the points Emma made were:

There have already been over 300 incidents of lithium ion batteries catching fire in Australia.

The battery of an EV vehicle is installed under the vehicle between the four wheels. All it takes is a bump on the battery, such as in a car accident or driving over a concrete edging, for one of the cells in the array to short circuit. Each cell has a very high energy density,  so a short circuit is very dangerous.  If a short circuit occurs, the driver will hear little crackling noises. They then must get well away from the vehicle instantly because in a short moment highly flammable toxic gases (not smoke) will be ejected out of the vehicle at high speed and catch fire. The fire will rapidly consume the vehicle. And it will be far, far hotter than a fire in petrol-driven car, hot enough to melt the asphalt beneath the car! It can take many fire trucks using up all of the water in their tanks to put the fire out - that is, tonnes of water were required for just one vehicle! 

Another cause of this happening is when the battery is being recharged. Special cables should be used, but a lot of people buy inappropriate cheap leads from hardware stores instead. We saw graphic video-clips of cars catching on fire and even exploding whilst being charged.

Of equal concern is that the fire can either start or re-ignite hours, days or months later. This has caused tow trucks, scrap yards and garages to catch on fire! We also saw video footage of this! 

There was a case overseas of an EV bus that had its battery on its roof. The battery caught fire whilst parked along with all the other 39 buses that a company owned and kept in a huge depot. All 40 buses and the building in which they were housed were destroyed in minutes! 

This danger is not confined to vehicles. It is just as bad for electric bicycles, scooters and skateboards! We saw a video-clip of a battery on an electric bike catching on fire when it was being recharged in a garage. Within 3 seconds a stream of gases filled the garage!  I also was told by one of the guests about it happening to someone charging his electric skateboard in his lounge. The person was standing just outside the lounge on a balcony. The battery exploded and gases pushed him off the balcony, killing him!

The danger of course also applies to lithium ion batteries connected to rooftop solar systems and other power storage facilities. 

Needless to say, we were aghast that lithium ion batteries clearly were not fully tested before they were marketed and that despite all these serious safety issues, continue to be used. Moreover, we were astounded that not only has the public not been made aware of this, but also firefighters are only just beginning to learn how to handle these emergencies. Ambulance and police are so far unaware and are ill-equipped and will be at great risk if they are the first responders, as they don't have gas masks and other protective gear. 

The following website was developed primarily to introduce firefighters to this issue. Emma is in the video on the website, which is eye-opening and very worth seeing! A journalist and a firefighter, Emma spoke reallywell..


On a more positive note, our second guest speaker was from a Deakin University research team that is working on developing a safer battery. Dr Hiroyuki Ueda gave us a very detailed an overview of their research. One problem they identified is the use of a flammable organic electrolyte in the battery. He said that a sodium ion battery seems to have potential. Dr Ueda and his boss, Dr Timothy Khoo, will be inviting the H, S & E Group to visit the new facility ‘Bat-TRI HUB 2.0’ at Deakin University, Burwood, when it is finished, probably later this year.  The H, S & E Group will do that as a site visit, but will ensure that any and all RACI members can go.

The website for the Deakin University facility is:  https://batteryinnovationhub.com.au/

Altogether this was very lively, worthwhile event that included a great meal and many interesting, animated conversations around the tables. 

Afterwards, one other attendee and I agreed – we would rather drive a car running on recycled vegetable oil... something he advocated in his fairly recent PhD.

A sincere thanks goes to Richard Thwaites and members of the H, S & E Group for a very successful, thought-provoking event. 


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