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Time-Bomb Batteries

Fire Service Victoria attending a suspected Lithium-ion battery blaze

Lithium-ion batteries essentially power the 21st century. Our smart devices, laptops, power tools, electric vehicles, toys and more all owe their functionality to these long-life, rechargeable wonders. Yet their prominence in modern life has highlighted a serious flaw in the technology. An alarming increase in fires or straight up explosive combustion associated with lithium-ion batteries has prompted more stringent warnings from fire authorities.

According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), Australian households will have an average 33 items powered by lithium-ion batteries within the next two years. This statistic runs parallel to the revelation from a Fire Rescue Victoria (FRV) spokesperson, that they are attending “nearly one lithium-ion battery related fire per day”. Clearly there is a risk with the technology.

In fact, from their very inception in the late 1960s, the development of lithium-ion batteries was plagued with spontaneous fire outbreaks, which stalled their adoption into common use. It was not until the mid-1980s when the chemical reaction which gave the batteries their power was finally stabilised, that commercial production began. Lithium-ion batteries are designed to run for between two to ten years, though their stability can depend on quality, environmental conditions and usage. These factors place lithium-ion batteries in the ‘increased risk' zone.

Furthermore, the electronics market is flooded with lithium-ion batteries of varying degrees of quality, meaning devices containing cheaper model batteries can be purchased easily. According to Energy SafeVictoria, buying electrical products from overseas does not guarantee they have undergone the same level of safety checks that are considered standard in Australia. Lithium-ion batteries that display the regulatory compliance mark (a tick inside a triangle) have passed local safety checks.

In Victoria, several recent major house fires have been linked directly to the storing of bulk quantities of e-bike batteries in people’s apartments. In such cases, all it takes is one poor quality battery to combust before triggering a chain reaction, creating a very destructive chemical fire. These types of fires are notoriously difficult to contain and can produce toxic fumes. The root cause of lithium-ion battery fires is down to them being extremely energy-dense. They contain electrolytes that are highly flammable, and in degraded or poor quality batteries, they can rapidly enter thermal runway, meaning they heat up and combust.

Energy Safe Victoria and the FRV recommend:

Storing lithium-ion battery powered devices out of direct sunlight, in a cool dry place.

  • Do not over-charge batteries. Once your device has reached 100% battery power, simply disconnect it from the mains.

  • Only use batteries, chargers and cords originally provided with that device.

  • Place charging devices on non-flammable surfaces, such as steel, ceramic or concrete.

  • Only charge devices in a room with a working smoke alarm.

  • Store and charge e-bikes and e-scooters outside. If it is necessary to take them inside your home, do not store or charge them in front of or near exits in case of an emergency.

In some cases, identifying a potential problem battery is possible. FRV spokesman said, “Stop using or charging the product if you notice strong odours, extreme heat, change in shape (swelling), leaking or unusual sounds. If safe to do so, move the device to an open area preferably outside or away from other objects that may catch fire if the battery goes into thermal runway. Leave the area and call Triple Zero (000), even if you no longer see visible flames or smoke. It's not safe to attempt to put out a lithium-ion battery fire yourself. When on fire, they release toxic gases and may generate multiple explosions.”

Once a lithium-ion battery begins showing signs of degradation it should be disposed of. According to the Environment Protection Authority, no type of battery should be placed in household recycling or general waste bins. Instead, your local Glenferrie Hawthorn Woolworths, Coles, Hawthorn Arts Centre, IGA and Bunnings all have proper battery disposal bins onsite. These are your safest bet for proper disposal.

Look for these battery disposal bins to ensure proper disposal. In Glenferrie Hawthorn, Bunnings, Coles, Woolworths, IGA and the Hawthorn Arts Centre all have these bins.

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