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When batteries explode.

Byline: Halle Cheeseman

In the late afternoon on November 9, 2017, a loud explosion occurred at the Orlando airport. Someone shouted, "Shooter!" and the crowd scattered like birds in hunting season. The event that occurred outside of the security area followed the tragic Las Vegas and Texas shootings.

The pandemonium, while not surprising, caused long delays, many extra hours of work, thousands of unhappy passengers and millions of dollars of unplanned expense. The loud report? A lithium-based battery in a camera exploding in a passenger's bag. This incident was particularly disruptive, but the FAA reports one lithium ion incident every 10 days involving everything from electronic cigarettes to cargo.

Batteries are powering our lives

Batteries are ubiquitous, but as unseen components in devices, we do not pay much attention to them. In 1972, the average home had two battery-operated devices. Today, it is likely that the average home has at least 30, powering everything from cell phones to headgear to medical implants.

As we look to the future, batteries are the key to many of the advanced technologies that we expect will improve our lives, including electric vehicles, renewable energy, home robots and artificial intelligence. These batteries will be bigger, store more energy and have more power than anything we have seen before. Lithium ion batteries are the most important energy storage component for much of what is coming. Here is a brief snapshot of its journey as captured for the most popular building block, the 18650 cell.

The domination of the lithium battery

While pages could be written regarding the lithium ion market, here are four observations to consider:

i) The current global market for lithium ion batteries is over $30 billion, and at its current Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 16%, it will double in five years.

ii) Lead acid has just passed the $50 billion mark; and is 155 years old. In its early decades, it had many problems that could only be shared by writing a letter and sending it by pony express. In contrast, when lithium ion has a problem, the fire can be on YouTube within seconds.

iii) Lead acid and NiCad comprise exactly those components; but lithium ion has many different flavors. For example: Lithium nickel manganese cobalt, lithium iron phosphate, lithium cobalt oxide, lithium titanate, lithium manganese oxide, and lithium nickel cobalt aluminum oxide. Each flavor has its own performance and safety characteristics.

iv) The battery market will grow faster than can be imagined.

Exploding batteries

If lithium ion batteries are not properly managed, they can explode.

No discussion about batteries is complete without basic battery 101 information. Batteries are a complex integration of chemistry, electrical and mechanical disciplines, but here are the basics for lithium-based batteries:

Law #1: Batteries contain negative anodes and positive cathodes. These are reactive opposites and must be isolated with a separator.

Law #2: Ions in the electrolyte connect everything and make current flow when required.

Law #3: If the separator doesn't do its job kaboom!

Law #4: Lithium batteries must be used within their operating limits. Overcharging, over discharging and temperature extremes will lead to problems and possible explosions.

Law # 5: The more energy in the battery, the bigger the explosion.

Lithium ion already has a torrid history

Billions of lithium ion cells have been made, used and discarded without any issues. Many manufacturers have never had an incident in the marketplace. However, should there be a problem with one cell, then adjacent lithium ion cells can be triggered into thermal runaway and overall catastrophic failure results. This tendency is so endemic that in the first 10 years of lithium ion use, half a dozen lithium ion factories burned down because of this avalanching effect.

Dangers of lithium ion batteries

The lithium ion cell manufacturers learned how to build factories that were less vulnerable to a single cell failure. The last few years, however, have seen some high-profile lithium ion safety problems related to specific devices. Each has had serious consequences. For example:


In 2013, following two battery fires, Boeing grounded 48 Dreamliners.


In 2015, over 100 Hoverboard fires were reported. One sadly resulted in the death of a three-year-old girl.


In 2016, Samsung recalled almost 3 million Galaxy Note 7 phones. Seven hundred engineers, 200,000 phones and 30,000 batteries were involved in the investigation. Samsung has an outstanding reputation for quality. This was an unfortunate blemish.


As of the end of 2016, residential payouts for property damage caused by lithium ion batteries in the U.S. had exceeded $2 million.

One of the following can cause safety incidents involving fire or explosion:


A manufacturing defect that lays dormant until the cell is used in a device. This was the case in the Note 7 incident.


Poor design of the battery and/or its integration within the device/charger. This was a key issue in the Boeing incident.


Abuse or misuse of the product. This may be intentional or accidental. A good example is an electronic vehicle catching fire because an object is kicked up from the road and punctures the underside of the battery case. Insurance fraud also fits here.

Lithium ion incidents are not acts of God

Is there reasonable excuse or justification for such problems? The answer is a definitive no! As with any product that suffers a destructive incident, it is not always easy to determine the root cause but these are not acts of God. While there will always be the one-offs, generally such problems will be systemic and can be related to a particular lapse somewhere in the design process or supply chain. As sales grow, and as competition becomes fierce, a common recipe for problems often comes together. Battery designs pushed to the limit, new products rushed into production, and new, less experienced suppliers for batteries and battery-powered devices entering the market. This is the risk profile:

To take each of these in turn:

a) Regulatory certification is only ever a starting point when it comes to safety, but it is essential nonetheless. Batteries must be approved to UL1642, UL2054 or UL1973 standards, and the devices they are used in approved to their respective standards.

b) Any new and different battery chemistry is higher risk. Lithium metal batteries are coming that have higher energy than lithium ion. Here's a paradox though: The best way to deal with a lithium ion fire is to douse it with lots of water. The worst way to deal with a lithium metal fire is to use any water at all!

c) There are many experienced lithium ion cell manufacturers with sterling records, who follow every safety protocol possible to ensure safety. The insurance industry should maintain a list of these "A" suppliers and set premiums accordingly.

d) Cell manufacturers care a lot about safety and their reputation. The good ones have strict policies regarding the device designs in which they will allow their cells to be used. Product design sign-off by the cell and device manufacturers does more to ensure accountability for safety than any other single factor.

e) Battery energy is like computing power. We will never be able to get enough. This desire may be insatiable, but it is controllable. Battery design and system management strategies can be employed to ensure that the high energy need not be such a liability, and simple design metrics can be employed to confirm this.

Determining culpability for incidents

For the purposes of insurance investigation and the assignment of liability, here are the facts one should consider before pursing compensation for a battery-related incident.

1) Over 90% of lithium ion batteries are manufactured in the Asia Pacific (AP) region. Japanese and South Korean companies will generally act responsibly regarding a problem, but companies from other AP countries will be more variable in their cooperation.

2) For U.S. insurance purposes, U.S. agents, distributors and original equipment manufacturers must be held accountable. Their insistence on the application of UL standards, their audit of foreign factories and their engagement in the product development process are considered essential. It is normally impossible to determine the cell manufacturer of a failed battery from a failure, but business forensics can normally find the culprit.

3) It will be difficult to carry out root cause analysis on a single incident; however, once the problem has manifested itself multiple times, a good technical expert should be able to determine the root cause and therefore the culpability. A central database is going to be essential here and by default these are slowly coming together.

4) There is no reasonable excuse for lithium ion fires or explosions. The pursuit of rightful compensation will always be justified based on the effort versus the payback.

This article has focused on lithium ion, and given its size, growth and inherent risk, that is appropriate. Other battery systems are in development and the list is long. For example: Zinc air, aluminum air vanadium redox, solid state, sodium sulfur, nickel iron, nickel zinc, zinc-bromine, magnesium, prussian blue, advanced lead acid, sodium salt and liquid metal. Together they do not exceed $1 billion in sales globally. The majority of them will be used for large applications such as renewable energy storage and grid demand management. Lithium is the system that will dominate for the next 10 years if not longer.

Welcome to the world of tomorrow and the energy debate.

Tracking Battery Usage


Renewable energy is more useful with batteries/energy storage.


In the U.S. there is one new solar energy installation every 84 seconds.


There are over 8 million jobs globally in renewable energy.


There are over 300,000 jobs in the U.S. in renewable energy.


Energy storage investment in the U.S. totals over $1 billion.


After a slow start the Electric Vehicle (EV) Market is beginning to grow


EV sales in the US in 2017 were 200,000 vehicles. That is 1.1% of all cars sold in 2017. Some forecasts predict 40% by 2040.


Tesla is the EV leader & is building a "Giga-factory" to make EV batteries.


In the U.S., EV battery sales could exceed $100 billion/year by 2040.


Home robots are forecast to be a $30 billion global business by 2025.


Vacuum robots have been around for a few years & can cost from $70 to $1500. Other home robots starting to hit the market include shop assistants, lawn mowers, grill cleaners & for the sleepyheads, a mobile alarm clock!


Robots are expected to require typically 6 to 100 -18650 cells/unit (equiv.).


The battery requirements for artificial intelligence are unknown.

Halle Cheeseman ( is a 35-year battery veteran and is the president of Energy Blues LLC, a battery consulting group.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2018 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Article Type:Cover story
Date:Mar 1, 2018
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