Hot topic: Researchers push to reduce fire risk from lithium-ion batteries

The lithium-ion battery is a near-ubiquitous technology with a serious flaw: They sometimes catch on fire.

A video of crew and passengers aboard a JetBlue flight feverishly dumping water on a backpack became the most recent example of broader concerns about the batteries, which can now be found in almost any device that needs portable power. Headlines about lithium-ion battery fires originating from e-bikes, electric vehicles and laptops onboard passenger flights have surged over the last decade.

The increased public attention has energized researchers around the world working to improve the safety and longevity of lithium-ion batteries.

Innovations in batteries have soared in recent years — with researchers replacing flammable liquid electrolytes in standard lithium-ion batteries with more stable, solid electrolyte materials like nonflammable gels, inorganic glass and solid polymers to create solid-state batteries.

A study published last week in the journal Nature proposed a novel safety mechanism to prevent the formation of lithium “dendrites,” branch-like structures created when lithium-ion batteries overheat because of overcharging or damage. Dendrites can short-circuit the battery cell and cause explosive fires.

“We’re growing increasingly confident with each study that we can solve the safety and range issues in electric vehicles,” said Chunsheng Wang, lead author of the study and a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Maryland.

Yuzhang Li, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved in the study, said Wang’s development was an essential step to improving lithium-ion battery safety.

Li is working on his own innovations, building a next-generation battery made of lithium metal, which is capable of storing 10 times more energy than the graphite electrode component in traditional lithium-ion batteries.

When it comes to electric car safety, Li said that lithium-ion batteries are not as dangerous or common as the public may think, and that understanding lithium-ion battery safety protocol is essential.

“There are intrinsic risks associated with both electric vehicles and traditional cars,” he said. “But I think electric cars are safer in the sense that you’re not sitting on gallons of flammable liquid. ”

Li added that taking precautions against overcharging or after electric vehicle accidents is important.

Researchers studying lithium-ion battery fires at the nonprofit Fire Protection Research Foundation have found that electric vehicle fires are comparable in intensity to fires in conventional gasoline-powered cars, but electric car fires often last longer, take more water to extinguish and can reignite hours after flames disappear because of lingering energy in the battery.

Electric vehicles, because of their lithium-ion batteries, carry a unique risk for firefighters, first responders and drivers, said Victoria Hutchison, senior research project manager at the foundation. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that people should fear them, she added.

“We’re still working on understanding electric vehicle fires and how to best put them out,” Hutchison said. “It’s a learning curve. We’ve had combustion engine vehicles for a long time and this is more of an unknown, but we just need to learn how to handle these incidents properly.”

Concerns about electric vehicle fires could also be driving up insurance prices, according to Martti Simojoki, a loss prevention expert who works with the International Union of Marine Insurance. He said insuring electric cars as cargo is currently one of the least attractive businesses among insurers, which may increase insurance costs for those looking to transport electric vehicles due to a perceived risk of fires.

But a study by the International Union of Marine Insurance, a nonprofit group that represents insurers, found that electric vehicles are not more dangerous or riskier than conventional cars. In fact, a high-profile cargo fire off the Dutch coast over the summer was not confirmed to have originated from an electric vehicle, Simojoki said, despite headlines suggesting otherwise.

“I think there’s a reluctance to introduce risk,” he said. “And if the risk is high, the price will be higher. At the end of the day, it’s the end consumer who pays for that.”

CORRECTION (Nov. 7, 2023, 9:07 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the first name of the study’s lead author. He is Chunsheng Wang, not Chunseng.

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