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Transport Canada treat lithium batteries as dangerous goods:

While most lithium batteries are safe, some have overheated and caught fire. Once ignited, they can cause any nearby batteries to overheat and catch fire, as well. These fires are difficult to put out and produce toxic and irritating fumes.

[...]

Recent reports of incidents involving the failure of lithium batteries include:

  • Computer batteries have heated up and caused fires on cargo and passenger planes.
  • A charging lithium ion battery exploded on a mini-submarine designed to carry U.S. Navy SEALs to shore.
  • A passenger’s camera batteries began smoking at the boarding gate.
  • Two large battery packs in a checked baggage began smouldering. The bag burst into flames when an airline agent picked it up.
  • During a flight, crew found a flashlight’s counterfeit lithium metal battery overheating and giving off a strong odour. The damaged battery burned the inside of the flashlight.

While Transport Canada group together Lithium Metal and Lithium Ion batteries together, I thought that Lithium Ion batteries were quite stable, as opposed to the Lithium Metal batteries. Yet, Transport Canada list an anecdote of a Lithium Ion battery exploding.

Are there documented cases of Lithium Ion batteries overheating and exploding or self-igniting?

  • 2
    I made a significant edit to refocus the question to make it about a notable claim. Please check it still is a question you want answered. – Oddthinking Nov 2 '15 at 2:54
  • @Oddthinking Thank you. I agree with the modifications. It's indeed much better now. – cinico Nov 2 '15 at 8:23
  • It all depends on how you handle them, already dropping them can cause its internals to start a fatal reaction. Just search for it on youtube, there are many spectacular videos. In my lifetime I had already two of them explode on me – PlasmaHH Nov 27 '15 at 16:07
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Lithium ion batteries are considered as hazardous materials for purposes of airline transportation regulations because they can overheat and ignite in certain conditions and, once ignited, can rapidly spread and be especially difficult to reduce. Research into lithium ion battery fire and explosion shows that the fuel, oxygen and energy existing in lithium ion battery system provides the necessary contributions to the combustion triangle, and thus there is the possibility of fire and/or explosion.

Lithium batteries are capable of spontaneous ignition and subsequent explosion due to overheating. Overheating may be caused by electrical shorting, rapid discharge, overcharging, manufacturers defect, poor design, or mechanical damage, among many other causes. Overheating results in a process called thermal runaway, which is a reaction within the battery causing internal temperature and pressure to rise at a quicker rate then can be dissipated. The fire may be a progressive burn-off or one that is explosive in nature.

Referring to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), there have been a number of recalls involving lithium-ion batteries/battery packs/battery chargers for use in cellular telephones, portable computing products, and other personal electronic products due to potential hazards.

The Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) has identified 45 air transport related incidents involving lithium batteries and lithium battery powered devices and 113 incidents involving all types of batteries since March 20, 1991 which is described here. Several lithium ion battery fire safety testing reports are documented here. Also a detailed study of Lithium-Ion Battery Fire onboard a Boeing 787 by the US National Transportation Safety Board is present here.

A recent example of a documented case of cargo hold smoke event by an electrical short circuit involving lithium batteries in a Boeing 737 (DQ-FJH) at the Melbourne Airport on 26 April 2014 is described here.

This incident highlights the hazards associated with transporting lithium batteries and the need to individually protect batteries to prevent short circuits and minimise the risk of overheating and fire.

Another lithium-ion battery fire event documented by NASA during a lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery test on October 20, 2009 is present here.

Several airline organizations have separate guidelines for dealing with cargo containing lithium ion batteries.

  1. International Air transport association guidelines for lithium ion batteries transport through air is present here and here.

  2. International Civil Aviation Organization performance package standards discussion for lithium ion batteries are present here.

  3. The Australian Government Civil Aviation Safety Authority battery safety guidelines are present here.

Published studies conducted to assess potential fire hazards associated with transport and storage of lithium-ion batteries had included only small-scale testing results since testing had been conducted with single cells, relatively small quantities of cells (less than 100), or small notebook computer battery packs.

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First post in this group. Generally any lithium battery is rather dangerous. My experience stems from drone flight (lipos mostly), reasonable travel (airplane) and research to keep things safe.

Regarding "explode", that is a little hyperbolic. There is not really a "boom", more like a fizz that turns into a fire and possibly a jet of flame. Explosions are indeed possible under extreme circumstances (toss on on the BBQ maybe). But I would consider explosions less likely or of no creditable threat when handled correctly, in good condition, and kept in known temperature, load, and barometric pressure (including the air pressure and not enduring rapid pressure changes).

Regarding "self ignite": Totally possible, but with caveat. Damaged batteries, shorts, and other mechanical type failures may persist for a long time and then suddenly reach a point of failure. Take that definition as you wish, it straddles the yes and no.

Generally my experience with lithium batteries is electronic devices and drone batteries. The batteries are usually foil-like pouches where the material is contained. Most laptops and phones are of this ilk. Drone batteries and similar removable lithium batteries are commonly multiple pouches wired to get desired voltage where the size (mass) determines the amps available (mAh rating).

Lithium generally gets very mad when exposed to water or oxygen. Ruptures will begin a chain reaction that can be difficult to stop (let it burn out). Under stress (rapid charge and discharge) events are accelerated. Commonly before a battery fails it "puffs" and swells. Should the conditions contributing to this stress not be eliminated or decreased the battery will cook and "blow", to use a generic term.

From my reading the way to treat a lipo fire is salt water, bucket of sand, or bury the unit. The salt water has a chemistry angle I am not able to comment on, but look up "lipo safety" in any reputable Remote Control hobby area and you will get the basics.

When transporting lipos several best practices do apply:

  • Do not transport via air such as belly of a plane, fed-ex air. The exceptions is when they are on your person. Keep the batteries (this is law) as carry-on where the temperature and pressure is controlled (for the humans). My batteries are always in a special double pouch and monitored by me the entire flight for any fluctuation of temperature.
  • Place batteries as "storage" charged, nominally a 60% charge. Should the battery be too hot (charged up too much) or too low (under minimum safe voltage) the stability is decreased.
  • Carry the batteries in a manner that they will not be ruptured. For example, I tape ALL the connectors to the side of the battery so the rectangle connector will be less likely to receive great pressure pierce the unit(s). In other words, meticulous packing.
  • Use a LiPo safe bag (fiberglass lined fireproof bag). Team Blacksheep has a nice one with some good added info. http://team-blacksheep.com/products/prod:liposafety
  • Keep your WH (watt-hour) in the legal limit. I think in the US you need to be under 10000 mah (not official number).

I point out much of this as the explode and self ignite fears are indeed valid, but in my professional(?) opinion they are all explained by poor handling, poor quality, and ignorance in general to the tech.

I have about 15 national flights so far w/full drone gear (10+ batteries) and I can tell you to expect security to think they are bombs (swipe test). Be nice, be cool, and be an ambassador to the hobby or activity you are engaging and explain why you have the units.

Also try to keep batteries in good working condition and in a positive appearance. I re-shrink wrap batteries if the original case starts to look like hell. In the post 9/11 era of flight, your rights are diminished and relatively low paid worker bees are your interface on the operational front line. Keep this in mind, things can escalate quickly and cause great distress or worse.

Good luck, hope I helped!

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

  • Much of what you say is most likely correct, but this site will demand that the key facts are backed up by references to reliable sources. If you add those this could be a good answer; if you don't it may be down voted and lost. – matt_black Nov 2 '15 at 22:19
  • Welcome to Skeptics! Please provide some references to support your claims. Note that your personal experience and expertise is not something we can independently verify. Instead, your expertise should hopefully be helpful in finding high-quality references we can evaluate and trust. – Oddthinking Nov 3 '15 at 1:43
  • @matt_black I will gather some references, anything or particular points in you would like me to get or clarify? I have been working on a compendium for drone pilots regarding air travel and LiPo safety is the centerpiece of this work. I have 100+ pages of notes/docs/etc on the topic as related to use in the USA + FAA resources + legal/tech discovery. I don't want to over invest as much as satisfy need for this room. – Marc Nov 6 '15 at 22:16
  • I had a buddy that was replacing the battery in his cell phone and accidentally shorted it out. It nearly set his carpet on fire. It's fairly well known that lithium batteries are dangerous. There are a million videos on youtube of people blowing them up on purpose. – Robert Stiffler Nov 7 '15 at 8:02
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    @RobertStiffler yeah. Scary shit. I shorted a battery for a split second, it got hot and swelled very fast. As a freestyle drone pilot you need to know your business. I have a huge spreadsheet tracking charge, internal resistance, and life of all my batteries. I have been researching best practice on this for quite a while and aim to release a compendium on best approaches to traveling w/drones. The LiPo aspect is 90% of the risk. – Marc Nov 10 '15 at 18:55

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