Lithium batteries are in the eye of the storm: are they so dangerous?

By Mario Minervino / mminervino@lanueva.com

The battery of a motorcycle that explodes in the middle of the night inside an apartment and causes a tragedy in the neighborhood of La Recoleta, a cell phone that catches fire while its owner charges it under a pillow.

Two isolated facts but that set off an alarm, considering that there is not a home, office, school or business that does not have some device that is running on lithium batteries, the material that has revolutionized the market to the point of being considered “white gold”. ”, a soft, silver-white metal that has made it possible to develop energy storage technology for the most widely used electronic devices on the planet.

Proof of its importance is that the three winners of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry received it for having designed the battery based on that material, laying the foundations “for a wireless society,” according to the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences.

Hence the concern of knowing what is behind these batteries, what is the real risk they represent and what are the tips for their use and maintenance.

Base

A battery is an instrument that allows electrical energy to be stored for later use, key when there is no electrical power, in isolated places or in portable devices.

“The lead-acid battery is used in automobiles, but it does not offer enough density to be used in equipment where weight is important. That is why lithium-based technology is chosen in cell phones, skateboards or electric motorcycles,” Dr. Héctor Chiacchiarini, from the “Alfredo Desages” Institute of Electrical Engineering Research and professor at the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computers, explained to this newspaper. the UNS.

The professional explained that a lithium battery has a similar structure to any other battery, with cells in series, each containing an electrode and an electrolyte.

Regarding its safety, he mentioned that “all batteries, whatever their technology, are designed to operate within certain thermal, electrical and mechanical ranges, having natural degradation processes. They even deteriorate even if they are not used. That is why they must be controlled.”

Although there is specific equipment to analyze the state of a battery, a user can detect some signs that indicate failures in its operation.

“A very deteriorated battery can be recognized when it no longer stores as much charge and discharges in less time, if it rises more temperature than usual or if it looks swollen or deformed. In these cases, insisting on its use could lead to a sudden rise in temperature and lead to ignition”.

To prevent these situations, lithium batteries have an electronic system that monitors their voltage and temperature levels and prevents the current from exceeding safety limits.

“The explosion of a battery usually occurs due to internal overheating, the generation of flammable gases or a crack in the container. These accidents have an unpredictability component, but their failure rate is very low –one in 10 million- if they are operated with the care recommended by the manufacturer”, he concluded.

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Eduardo Gigante is an Industrial Engineer (UBA), specialist in Natural Gas and Energy.

consulted by The new oneindicated that all batteries have the same operating structure and are differentiated by the materials that make up said elements.

“In lithium-ion batteries, the anode is graphite and the cathode is a compound in which we find lithium.”

He assured that they are very safe batteries that are manufactured by the millions with very low failure rates.

When asked about the cases of explosions or fires, he pointed out that several factors may have generated these situations.

“Manufacture defects, blows to the battery that caused it to break, charging deficiency due to a faulty electrical installation, use of an inappropriate charger or an external temperature higher than that recommended by the manufacturer,” he mentioned.

Among the recommendations to avoid inconveniences, he listed those of never opening the device where the battery is located, verifying that it is not damaged and if it has a different volume than the original.

“Faults generally occur when the anode and cathode short circuit. This causes the temperature in the cell to rise and generate gases, which expands its volume. Lithium is very reactive in contact with oxygen and water, which causes violent exothermic reactions in a very short period”.

A final recommendation was, in case of fire, not to use water but the extinguisher recommended by the manufacturer.

To be responsible

Dr. Marisa A. Frechero, INQUISUR-CONICET Principal Investigator and professor in the UNS Department of Chemistry, explained that a lithium battery works the same as any household item.

“It stores energy by combining substances that give rise to a chemical reaction from which we obtain an electric current. In lithium those reactions are based on that material.”

As advantages, and unlike traditional batteries, lithium batteries can be recharged and reused. That is why they have better performance, are lighter and smaller and that is why they are used in a large number of devices.

“They have been used since the ’90s and are very safe. But like any technological device, it depends on two fundamental factors: manufacturing quality and responsibility in its use: few read the manufacturers’ manuals”, he pointed out.

As for the events related to battery explosions and fires, the professional preferred to be “very cautious and await the expertise in each case.”

“Batteries can catch fire because, like all technology, they can fail. In the case of the skateboard that caused the fire in Recoleta, the battery could have been overextended, hit or defective. What is clear is that they are not objects to leave anywhere in the house, ”he mentioned.

The care that he suggests having is basic, “common sense”.

“Be attentive to changes: a battery that “inflates” is an indication of the formation of gases that compromise its integrity, causing it to break and its components to come into contact with the air and ignite.”

He pointed out that it is advisable not to charge these devices near fireproof elements.

“A lot of people carry them on the bed, which is a tremendous risk. Or they leave the device connected for a long time without paying attention. It is also not recommended to leave objects with batteries near a heat source. In short, it is necessary to have a responsible use of these devices”, he insisted.

“From science we have focused on two fundamental aspects when manufacturing these batteries: a lower environmental impact and the second, fundamental, safety. Now we are working on the so-called solid-state batteries, with which we seek to prevent the appearance of gases and thus reduce the risk of explosion”, he concluded.

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Lithium batteries are in the eye of the storm: are they so dangerous?