Lithium-ion batteries were introduced to the market in the early 1990s when they first appeared in hand-held video cameras. Since then, the batteries have been used to power just about everything. The batteries are extremely popular because they can store large amounts of energy in a small space. In other words, lithium-ion batteries are energy dense.
In the past few months there have been a number of high-profile incidents with lithium-ion batteries exploding or catching fire in smartphones, self-balancing hover boards and electronic cigarettes that have caused consumers to suffer severe burns and other injuries. The common factor is usually a faulty manufacturing process, where the batteries are manufactured defectively or without a high degree of quality control.
Like any other battery, a lithium-ion battery is made of one or more power-generating compartments called cells. Each cell has essentially three components: a positive electrode, a negative electrode, and a chemical called an electrolyte in between them. The batteries work by moving lithium particles between a negative and positive electrode to charge and discharge. The movement of the particles causes heat as the battery is charged and discharged.
A faulty manufacturing process can lead to at least two situations that cause a lithium-ion battery to catch fire or explode. Those are:
• First, if a lithium-ion battery is defective in some respect, the heat generated by the charging and discharging can ignite the electrolytes, causing a fire or explosion. This is commonly known as thermal runaway. Essentially, a thermal runaway situation entails the insides of the batteries undergoing a chemical reaction that generates uncontrolled extra heat in addition to the heat that is produced in a normal charge or discharge.
• Second, if a lithium-ion battery’s outside shell or the barrier separating the electrodes is defective, the battery will be susceptible to puncture or tear, which can cause a short circuit to happen when positive and negative electrodes touch. The instant electrical discharge from the short circuit can be explosive.
The speed and severity of a fire or explosion in either situation is determined by a number of factors, including the power density of the lithium-ion battery and its composition. As such, high power cells can be particularly dangerous when they release large amounts of energy in an uncontrolled way.
Businesses and researchers continue to look into new battery technologies, but these lithium-ion batteries remain the standard. Lithium-ion batteries simply charge faster, last longer, and have a higher power density for more battery life than traditional battery technology.
If you would like more information about lithium-ion batteries, you can contact Will Sutton, a lawyer in our firm’s Toxic Torts Section, at 800-898-2034 or by email at William.Sutton@beasleyallen.com.
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