Australian lithium-ion battery blaze sparks safety concerns


From pv magazine Australia

A recent fire that badly damaged a home in Adelaide, Australia, was reportedly caused by a home battery system. The incident has once again put the spotlight on safety issues surrounding lithium-ion battery technology.

Stuart Dawes, the northern operations commander for the South Australian Metropolitan Fire Service, has described lithium-ion battery storage systems as an “emerging hazard to fire services around the nation,” reported the ABC.

Investigators have yet to determine what caused the fire and whether a fault in the product is to blame. It is not known what brand of battery the homeowner had installed.

Dawes said fire services across Australia are currently developing policies and procedures to cope with the rise of such incidents. It is critical for home battery systems to be properly stored and maintained, with exposure to excessive heat or punctures potentially leading to thermal runaway events.

Last year, pv magazine’s Insight Australia event looked at the safety issues surrounding lithium-ion technology. Professor Paul Christensen, one of the world’s leading experts on battery fires and safety, said that global uptake of lithium-ion battery technology has “outstripped” our knowledge of the risks.

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The problem with lithium-ion batteries, he said, is also the reason they are so useful: They store an enormous amount of energy in a small space. If that energy starts getting released in an uncontrolled way due to overheating or puncturing, it can lead to a thermal runaway event.

Thermal runaway involves chemical reactions occurring inside the battery which produce heat and gases. The heat caused by these reactions then accelerates further reactions, creating a “runaway” chain which can potentially lead to fires or explosions.

According to Christensen, there have been around 40 utility-scale lithium-ion battery fires around the world over the last three years. It is far more difficult to say how many residential battery fires there have been. This is because, similar to solar-caused fires, different state authorities record the data differently or not at all.

In October, the ABC also reported on a fire that broke out in a home in Broome, Western Australia. The fire was not caused by a residential battery system, but by a lithium-ion battery used for a cordless drill that was left charging overnight. As with the fire over the weekend in South Australia, the damage to the home was extensive.

Ben Muller, area officer for West Kimberley at the Department of Fire and Emergency Services, estimates that 15 to 20 fires a year are caused by lithium-ion batteries. He noted it is “certainly an increasing trend,” according to the ABC. Muller suggested installing extra smoke detectors in rooms with lithium batteries.

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