The Risks and Hazards Associated with Batteries

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JENSEN HUGHES personnel assess the risks associated with batteries for a wide range of clients including the US government. These assessments cover the spectrum from commercially available standard use batteries to large custom military batteries.  The knowledge gained through these assessments has proven to be invaluable in determining the origin and cause of battery initiated fires. As a result, JENSEN HUGHES engineers are uniquely qualified for forensic investigations of fires initiated by the reactions of lithium-ion batteries including those that have occurred in electric and hybrid vehicles. Lithium-ion batteries are a family of rechargeable cells that consist of an intercalated lithium compound for an anode (positive terminal) and a variety of different types of cathodes (negative terminal) and electrolytes. Lithium-ion batteries have become the predominant rechargeable battery chemistry for consumer electronics devices due to their higher energy densities. The Lithium-ion chemistry is different from previously popular rechargeable battery chemistries (e.g., nickel metal hydride, nickel cadmium, and lead acid) in a number of ways. From a safety and fire protection standpoint, the higher energy density coupled with a flammable organic electrolyte has created a number of new challenges with regard to the storage, charging and handling of these batteries.

Lithium Battery Failure MechanismsPicture_Section 2_Services_Forensic Services_Battery Fires

The primary failure mode of a lithium battery is associated with a flaw or damage to the thin plastic film that separates the anode and the cathode (referred to as the separator).  A flaw/damage to the separator can result in an internal short circuit that produces enough heat to vaporize the electrolyte and result in a violent reaction. The separator can fail due to internal defects (production defects), physical damage (handling issues), exposure to heat and overcharging.

From a probabilistic standpoint, battery reactions are most likely to occur during charging. Charging generates heat that can exasperate defects in the separator. Specifically, chargers typically have enough power to initiate a reaction within the cell if the separator had a manufacturer’s defect or was damaged while handling. However, batteries can react immediately if damaged (i.e., dropped) and although less likely, on their own without outside interference. Overcharging of the battery can melt a perfectly good separator also causing the battery to react. JENSEN HUGHES engineers can conduct analyses of battery remains in order to identify whether the battery was the origin of the fire and the mechanism of failure for the battery.

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