Batteries power the world. They enable mobile communication through smartphones, travel through e-mobility and electric vehicles, and a greener tomorrow by acting as storage for renewable energy. With a wide variety of uses, it’s no wonder that between four to six billion lithium-ion batteries are made each year. Because we bring this many batteries into our homes, we need to make sure they are safe.

Keeping lithium-ion batteries safe no matter how they are used takes a lot of work, just ask principal engineer director Ken Boyce of UL’s Energy and Power Technologies division. For the past 10 years, he’s been engaged in the world of large and small format batteries.

He pointed out the three big safety issues of lithium-ion batteries.

1. Letting the battery get too warm: When you sleep, do you put your cell phone under your blanket or pillow? This could cause something called thermal runaway, and it’s not good. Lithium-ion batteries need to stay cool. As Boyce explained, thermal runaway is when the battery’s electrochemistry gets out of control, causing more and more heat to be generated. With enough heat generation, a fire or explosion could result. Properly using your batteries, and battery-operated equipment, reduces this risk.

2. Using off-brand batteries and chargers: Electrical devices are made in specific ways and require the right equipment to be used safely. So, don’t swap out the charger or batteries that came with your phone or laptop for an off-brand product. Using the correct equipment helps ensure the battery safety system works perfectly, just as the engineers designed it to.

3. Physically damaging the battery: When a battery is damaged, even in a little way, it can have considerable effects. Electrolytes in lithium-ion batteries are flammable. It’s just how the chemistry works. And if one lithium-ion battery is damaged, even with just a pinhole-sized hole, it could damage other nearby batteries leading to the catastrophic result of multiple batteries undergoing thermal runaway.

Current battery issues causing some sparks

You’re probably already familiar with the next big thing in battery technology: wireless charging. The technology doesn’t pose an issue on the small scale for some wearable devices, such as smart watches, and smartphones, but getting a grip on the technology when it’s sized up to a larger scale is a powerful problem. For example, wirelessly transferring energy to a car can cause human exposure concerns or electrify nearby metal. What if a soda can were to roll into the charger’s field? It would start to glow red hot and potentially become a fire hazard itself. Industry and safety experts are working on ways to make sure this doesn’t happen.

Another question in the industry is how to reuse the five-million electrical vehicle batteries on the road, with many more being deployed each day. After about five years, an electric car battery holds less charge, about 80 percent of the original total, making it unsuitable for use on the road. Organizations, such as UL and the World Economic Fund, are devoted to finding an answer that’s good for the industry as well as the world.

To find out more about lithium-ion batteries, visit UL.com/Batt to learn about portable/wearable batteries. For more about stationary/motor-powering batteries, visit UL.com/Batteries.

The SafeBee Top Three

  • Keep your phone or tablet above the covers to keep it cool.
  • Use the manufacturer recommended charger and battery.
  • Avoid dropping or breaking batteries.