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Lithium Batteries – the Heat is On

  • Emma Tyler
  • April 4, 2024

From phones to electric cars and our increasingly green power grid, some of the greatest technological advances of recent years have one driving force in common: the lithium-ion battery.

These rechargeable batteries are everywhere: they can be found in e-bikes, e-scooters, forklifts, power tools, laptops and tablets, camping and gardening equipment. They are present in practically every Australian home and workplace.

But they are not without risk, and it’s vital that business owners consider the dangers and insurance implications.

While battery fires remain relatively rare, they seem to be on the rise. There were 180 such blazes last year in NSW alone, according to emergency services.

And recent figures from insurer Allianz show the importance of exercising caution. It has reported a 440% increase in claims for lithium-ion battery fires in the past three years, with soaring costs largely driven by commercial property damage.

The source of the batteries’ power is also the source of the danger. Lithium ions allow for the storage of large amounts of energy in a relatively small area, but the liquid electrolyte in which they are held is highly volatile and flammable, and in producing power the batteries also generate heat.

Dr Matthew Priestley from the Energy Systems Research Group at the University of NSW School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications says an overheating lithium-ion battery can succumb to a phenomenon known as thermal runaway.

“In this process, the excessive heat promotes the chemical reaction that makes the battery work, thus creating even more heat and ever more chemical reactions in a disastrous spiral,” he says.
It makes for self-sustaining fires that can burn to 400 degrees within seconds, and that are particularly hard to extinguish. Damaged or failing batteries can also explode or release toxic fumes.
As they become increasingly widespread, the safe use and storage of lithium-ion batteries should form part of any workplace risk management plan.

Dr Priestley says batteries should not be exposed to high external temperatures, and they should not be overcharged, as this can also create overheating. He also urges caution if a battery sustains damage such as being dropped or pierced.

Lithium-ion batteries should be charged and stored in cool, dry places, well away from flammable materials. And it is important to use the right charger for the device – avoid cheap, generic ones. Allow time for batteries to cool after use and before charging. Batteries should be disposed of at dedicated hazardous waste collection points or battery recycling services only.
If you are unsure about the impact of lithium-ion batteries, or how to handle them, talk to us. It’s important that we know the role they play in your operations so we can make sure you’re across all the repercussions for your business, and your insurance cover.

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