Fears that fires caused by lithium-ion batteries ‘will increase significantly’ as electric scooter popularity rises

Firefighters fear that the number of house fires caused by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries will “increase significantly” in the coming years as devices such as electric scooters become more popular.

In the past financial year, 46 fires were ignited by the usual type of batteries in Queensland.

This is the first time statistics have been kept specifically listing them as the cause of a fire, after Queensland Fire and Emergency Service (QFES) crews noticed it was more frequent.

Chief Inspector Mark Halverson, executive manager of QFES’s security department, said the number is “rapidly increasing.”

“With the proliferation of devices now powered by lithium-ion batteries, that number is likely to increase significantly in the coming years,” he said.

There were two deadly fires in Brisbane and Logan this year, believed to have been caused by a rechargeable battery.

Two lithium-ion batteries failed, causing a garage fire in southern Queensland in 2020 after an estimated two hours of charging.(Delivered: Queensland Fire and Emergency Service)

In March, a 22-year-old man was killed when a fire broke out in the caravan he and his pregnant partner were in, while a six-year-old boy was killed in a violent house fire in April.

However, Queensland Police said investigations into both fires are still ongoing and reports are being prepared for the coroner.

It is a timely warning for people to know the dangers of lithium-ion batteries and to avoid possible disasters.

Where are lithium-ion batteries used?

A woman smiled at the camera.
dr. Ruth Knibbe says batteries pose a particular risk when charging.(ABC News: Michael Lloyd)

Lithium-ion batteries can be found in almost every battery-powered household appliance, from our cell phones, laptops, tablets, electric razors to larger appliances such as tools, e-scooters and e-bikes.

Ruth Knibbe, a researcher at the University of Queensland’s School of Mechanical and Mining Engineering, said that while the technology has to be manufactured so as not to start a fire, much cheaper devices have entered the market.

“I don’t want people to be alarmed … this is new technology coming out and more security will be put in place to make sure we don’t have this kind of problem,” she said.

“The fires mainly start when your battery is charging.

“As consumers, we don’t know the battery chemistry, we don’t know the manufacturing quality, we don’t know the quality of the battery management system, so there are a lot of uncertainties that we have.

“We say if you have a problem, just stop using it.”

Why do fires start?

Chief Inspector Halverson said fires are “mostly” caused by human error.

“As far as not understanding what the dangers are, that’s the main point,” he said.

Flames shown in a structure at night
The scene of a fire west of Cairns in 2020 after a string of lithium-ion batteries failed and ignited.(Delivered: Queensland Fire and Emergency Service)

It’s vital that each device only plugs into the correct charger, Chief Inspector Halverson said.

“People need to be aware that they need to be very vigilant when charging lithium-ion batteries. They should never be overcharged. In fact, they should be disconnected from the charge when it has reached its maximum charge,” he said.

“Overcharging can occur, overheating can occur and in that case the lithium-ion batteries become extremely dangerous and very prone to at least toxic odor emissions or even small fires, or catastrophic fire in extreme conditions.”

dr. Knibbe said heat is also bad for the battery.

“I expect we’ll have more battery explosions in the summer because of that combination of heat and charging,” she said.

What can be done to avoid risks?

Chief Inspector Halverson said it’s best to charge larger devices outdoors, and both the battery and device should never be left in direct sunlight or in an area where they could overheat.

“And certainly not in an area directly adjacent to combustible materials such as clothing, sheets, blankets, and so on,” he said.

He said batteries that have been damaged in any way pose a greater risk.

A house on fire.
A house in WA was destroyed by fire in 2021 from an overheated lithium battery.(Delivered: Emilie Milne)

Superintendent Halverson said people should also be careful when disposing of batteries, whether they’ve reached their expiration date or because they’re damaged.

“First, they can be taken to the local resource recovery center. Second, there are special places for battery recycling, and third, there are some of the bigger retailers of hardware and the like that take those kinds of batteries and put them on the proper way.” he said.

“I would certainly warn 100 percent never to throw any of those batteries in the trash.

“Obviously they could be tossed around in the bin and very much damage will occur, which is a recipe for that lithium battery to explode or start a significant fire.”

Brisbane City Council said there had been 28 cases in the past three years where refuse trucks had to dump their loads on the streets after being set on fire, but the cause of these fires cannot always be determined.

“Residents must treat batteries as hazardous waste and there are many places to dispose of them for free, including the four resource recovery centers,” a spokeswoman said.

What to do in the event of a possible fire?

A man in uniform stands in front of a sign that reads Queensland Fire and Emergency Services.
Mark Halverson, executive manager of the state security department at Queensland Fire and Emergency Services, expects the number of fires to “increase significantly”.(ABC News: Marton Dobras)

Chief Inspector Halverson said any signs of battery problems should be treated seriously.

If there is any sign of fire or an odor coming from the device or battery, turn off the power immediately if possible.

Do not use water or other methods to extinguish the fire.

“Warn everyone in the house and remove yourself from the house because not only do you have the threat of fire but the toxic fumes can be extremely dangerous to people and of course call triple-0 immediately,” Chief Inspector Halverson said. .

Why are lithium-ion batteries so popular, given the potential danger?

dr. Knibbe said they are used so often “because of the high energy and relatively high power you can get from them”.

“Right now, lithium-ion batteries will be around for a long time, especially for portable devices, because it’s lightweight,” she said.

Researchers from the University of Queensland are among teams around the world trying to develop a “faster charging and more durable” aluminum-ion battery alternative.

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