No one expects their cell phone or laptop to suddenly catch fire, but that’s exactly what’s been happening in the news with increasing frequency. On airplanes alone, the Federal Aviation Administration has reported at least 18 of these incidents in airports and airplanes so far in 2017. In 2013, there were eight incidents.
The cause of these spontaneously combusting devices is lithium-ion batteries (or li-ion batteries). As people continue to own more and more rechargeable devices—including things like wireless headphones and e-cigarettes that weren’t even on the market a few years ago—consumers’ concern about lithium-ion batteries continues to grow. Even though lithium-ion batteries are safe, millions of consumers are using them; failure is bound to happen occasionally.
How to extinguish a lithium-ion battery fire
Let’s cut right to the chase. Despite their name, lithium-ion batteries used in consumer products do not contain any actual lithium metal. Therefore, a Class D fire extinguisher is not to be used to fight a lithium-ion battery fire. Class D fire extinguishers, which contain dry powder, are intended for combustible metal fires only. Since lithium-ion batteries aren’t made with metallic lithium, a Class D dry powder extinguisher would not be effective.
So, what kind of fire extinguisher should you use in this scenario? Lithium-ion batteries are considered a Class B fire, so a standard ABC or BC dry chemical fire extinguisher should be used. Class B is the classification given to flammable liquids. Lithium-ion batteries contain liquid electrolytes that provide a conductive pathway, so the batteries receive a B fire classification.
Why do lithium-ion batteries catch fire?
Should you worry about your cell phone spontaneously catching on fire? Don’t worry; the chances of it happening are slim.
There are two basic types of battery failure. The first involves a defect within the manufacturing of the battery, and when the defect is discovered the batteries are typically recalled. Just last year, the Samsung Galaxy Note7 smartphone was recalled over fire hazard concerns.
The second type of battery failure is hard to pinpoint. It’s usually the result of a stress event such as vibration, an electrical short, or could simply be a fluke. As Battery University explains:
“A mild short will only cause elevated self-discharge and the heat buildup is minimal because the discharging power is very low. If enough microscopic metallic particles converge on one spot, a sizable current begins to flow between the electrodes of the cell, and the spot heats up and weakens. As a small water leak in a faulty hydro dam can develop into a torrent and take a structure down, so too can heat buildup damage the insulation layer in a cell and cause an electrical short. The temperature can quickly reach 500°C (932°F), at which point the cell catches fire or it explodes.”
With the increasing rates of lithium-ion battery fires happening to consumer electronics, this has been a frequent topic asked of FireProTec. Assess your fire extinguisher needs today, so that you can be prepared, protected and safe no matter what.