The Top 5 Lithium-ion Battery Mishaps And Lessons Therein

Highlights :

  • Thermal Runaway is one of the major causes of Li-ion Batteries Mishaps
  • Inadequacy in mitigation plans by firefighters also responsible
The Top 5 Lithium-ion Battery Mishaps And Lessons Therein

Since its inception in the 1970s and first commercial launch by Sony in 1991, Lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery technology has come a long way. Fast forward half a century. As of today, almost every new technology that requires external power support, from smartphones to electric cars to even the International Space Station, uses Li-ion battery technology. However, the high energy density and efficiency that makes Lithium ion the preferred choice today can also backfire, if manufacturing or safety checks are shoddy. Now, as the world embarks on a huge ramp up of using these batteries, it’s critical to focus on safety. While a well made battery will be as safe as it needs to be, accidents, do, and have happened.

Not surprisingly,  low-quality components remain one of the main causes of battery failure, manufacturing defects may also lead to battery failure and avoidable accidents.

Avoidable situations such as keeping the battery very close to a heat source or near a fire can also cause it to explode in some circumstances. Penetrating the battery deliberately or accidentally also would cause a short-circuit and, eventually, fire. Even high voltage charging or excessive discharging may damage the pack. Poorly insulated chargers or using non-recommended chargers may also damage the battery.

Preventing fires matters, because Li-ion batteries ignite easily and the fires they generate are difficult to contain. Water only makes matter worse as it reacts with lithium. It doesn’t put lithium fires out.

So here’s a list of some of the most severe Li-ion Batteries Mishaps be it at factories, in gadgets, or at storage sites. We hope this will help you develop a better understanding of the need for utmost safety and proper management of these power sources. Besides the cases below, readers will recall the case of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phone series, which had to be withdrawn after repeated fires in their batteries. Or the recent case of the batteries on Ola Electric and Okinawa Electric 2 Wheelers, or even the recall of Hyundai Kona EV’s for battery related checks. As lithium ion batteries spread further, you will do well to keep in mind that handling them correctly will only help.

#1 Illinois Warehouse Mishap

Site – An old Warehouse, Morris, Illinois

June, 2021

One of the biggest Li-ion Batteries Mishaps of modern times occurred in Morris, Illinois. It involved the entire east side of a 13,000-people town, a 900-block radius accommodating about 4,000 residents.

An old Federal Paper Board building, an abandoned warehouse, housed approximately 200,000 pounds of batteries, most of which were lithium. Nearly, 50,000 of that number were damaged, defective, or recalled lithium batteries. Superior Battery was the company responsible to store the batteries in the warehouse. The company didn’t take permission nor did anyone know about the tons of hazardous storage. Further, the warehouse was ill-suited for such storage.

With a lack of experience in putting off Li-ion fires, firefighters made use of water which backfired and turned out catastrophic. The batteries underwent thermal runaway.

The actual cause of the mishap is yet unknown, but it was raining on the morning of June 29 and the lawsuits speculate that a leaky roof dripped water onto some exposed batteries, causing a thermal event. This continued for a few days. Even after mitigating the accident, the batteries continued to flare up on and off for the next 28 days.

#2 Meltdowns at Vistra Energy Storage Facility, California

Site – Energy storage facility owned by Vistra Energy in Moss Landing, California

February, 2022; September, 2021

On the evening of February 13, 2022, the largest lithium-ion battery in the world experienced a meltdown for a weekend.

It was the second time in 5 months that the 300-megawatt facility went offline due to battery issues. Less than a year after its establishment, the first incident took place in September 2021. Around 7 per cent (7,000) of the facility’s 100,000 battery modules were damaged. The cause of the mishap was the faulty action with its fire management software itself. It detected low smoke levels; this triggered the heat suppression system. Evidently, due to some anomaly, water got sprayed directly on a number of battery racks. The resultant overheating caused more smoke and, thus, led to the spraying of more water, and so on.

As per reports, the second meltdown of February 2022 was just a repetition of the September issue of failures of a small number of couplings on flexible hoses and pipes that sprayed water on some battery racks. Reportedly, ten battery packs in the facility melted.

#3 Beijing lithium battery explosion

Site – Public electric vehicle charging station Beijing Gotion Full-Service, Beijing

April, 2021

The explosion in Beijing involved the deaths of two firefighters. On April 16 2021, a 25 MWh Lithium-ion phosphate battery system connected to a 1.4 MW photovoltaic array at a public electric vehicle charging station Beijing Gotion Full-Service, caught fire.

A total of 47 fire trucks and 235 firefighters from 15 local fire brigades were deployed to control the blaze. A sudden explosion happened in the early hours of the next morning. This killed two firefighters and injured one.  A report later noted that the sudden explosion might have happened due to a safety accident induction mechanism, which is the thermal failure of the batteries in extreme conditions.

The cause of the fire couldn’t be ascertained. As per Beijing Fire Station reports, cell quality, battery management, electrical topology, external dust storms, and even wire arrangement could be the cause of the fire.

#4 Arizona battery explosion

Site – McMicken Energy Storage facility, Arizona Public Service (APS) electric utility, Arizona

April, 2019

The Arizona Public Service (APS) electric utility sustained a lithium-ion battery fire that caused severe injuries to several firefighters in April of 2019. When a large battery, to power a neighbourhood in Surprise, failed and began smoking, firefighters didn’t have a response plan for how to deal with the problem. It led to an explosion that injured several first responders.

At about 5 pm, a faulty battery cell had shorted out. The small building was packed with battery modules from the floor to the ceiling. The faulty battery cell overheated, and damaged other modules nearby. Just like other Li-ion Batteries Mishaps, this was another case of thermal runaway. Even though the fire-suppression system discharged, the batteries continued to overheat but with no flames. The system had no barriers between battery modules to prevent one overheating module from spreading to the next and creating a cascading effect, according to the report.

This led to a build-up of flammable gasses in the building. Those gasses exploded when the firefighters eventually opened the door and entered.

While there may be several reasons for the explosion, the lack of a ‘Li-ion mishap mitigation plan’ was responsioble for the injuries of firefighters. The firefighters opened a door on the facility about two hours after arriving on the scene, and two minutes later, the facility exploded. Along with eight firefighters, one policeman also got severely injured and hospitalized.

#5 Tesla Megapack fire in Australia

Site – Victoria Big Battery project, Melbourne

July, 2021

Due to a coolant leak that went undetected during start-up tests, two Tesla battery units fired up at a huge energy storage project in Australia. French renewable energy giant, Neoen, runs Victoria Big Battery project.

The fire was first detected on July 30. Smoke arose out of one Megapack and then erupted into flames, which took several hours to subside. It took three days before the fire authorities declared the site under control.

Short circuits in two locations triggered fire in the battery unit. After the initial testing Megapack was switched off. That’s when the short circuits occurred. This removed fault protection. Thus, the fault went undetected and the fire spread to an adjacent battery compartment.

Victoria Big Battery project is one of the world’s largest battery energy storage systems.

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Junaid Shah

Junaid holds a Master of Engineering degree in Construction & Management. Being a civil engineering postgraduate and using his technical prowess, he has channeled his passion for writing in the environmental niche.