How Common are Lithium-ion Battery Fires?

Storing up to 10x more energy in the same space than a regular lead acid battery, lithium-ion batteries have been widely integrated into modern technology and smaller consumer electronics, such as mobile phones and laptops. Acting as the power component for e-bikes, and electric cars; even seeing use in renewable energy generators such as wind turbines, they have come to be regarded as an essential component of decarbonisation efforts.

What raises concern, however, is that the rapid adoption of lithium-ion battery use has largely outpaced levels of awareness regarding the risks and hazards involved. According to the Environmental Services Association (ESA), 48% of all waste fires in the UK each year are caused by lithium-ion batteries.

What has been the impact?

Freedom of Information data, obtained by the insurer Zurich, shows the number of fires caused by lithium-ion batteries in the UK surged almost 150% from 2021-22, and the London Fire Brigade (LFB) considers lithium-ion battery fires to be the fastest growing fire-risk in the capital. From 2020-22, the LFB was reportedly called to 246 battery-related fire incidents. They have responded to an incident, on average, once every 2 days in 2023, with 119 fires already reported by June.

(Picture: Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service)

From the beginning of 2022 to May 2023, UK Fire and Rescue Services responded to 329 battery fires; associated specifically with e-bikes and e-scooters, contributing to a total 565 fires since the start of 2020. Ultimately, these figures demonstrate the severity of what can now be considered a national issue.

Lithium-batteries have also caused great concern for the UK’s waste management infrastructure in recent years, where a surge of fire incidents in dustcarts and Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs) have all been at least partially attributed to improper disposal of devices containing lithium-ion batteries. 700 were reported across 2022, all linked to damaged and incorrectly disposed devices containing lithium-ion batteries. The Environmental Services Association (ESA) has stated these incidents cost fire services and waste operators in excess of £150m.

Fire Causes

A lithium-ion battery is made up of an anode, cathode, separator, electrolyte, and two current collectors for positive and negative, with the anode and cathode storing the lithium. The electrical current then flows from the current collector through a device being powered to the negative current collector. The separator blocks the flow of electrons inside the battery. While the battery is providing an electric current, the anode releases lithium-ions to the cathode, generating a flow of electrons from one side to the other. When charging a device, the opposite happens.

Lithium-ion batteries are typically safe to use when supplied by reputable manufacturers and operated in accordance with their specifications. However, these are very sensitive devices and flammable on the inside. Their high density means they can be susceptible to pressure and overheating, causing the cells of the battery to effectively disperse, potentially leading to a rapid, uncontrolled release of heat energy known as ‘thermal runaway’ when the battery begins to fail.

When fires do occur, they tend to escalate very quickly and produce highly toxic gases. Temperatures range from 1,000°C to 2,000°C, and oxygen released from the battery’s cathode can exacerbate the spread of the fire and quickly eliminate opportunities for safe escape. Several conditions can ultimately lead to battery failure, including:

Ultimately, these significant safety risks are largely a question of improper use of lithium batteries and build quality. In residential building environments, however, the safety risk this poses to tenants is huge, not to mention the firefighters called to tackle the fire.

Safety Steps and Fire Safety Solutions

Inspired by advice gathered from the #ChargeSafe Campaign by the LFB, metroSTOR have compiled 9 simple safety steps to help prevent the risks of lithium-battery fires, aiming to provide awareness of safe charging and storage practices, while calling attention to the safety and fire risks involved.

With a view to addressing the rise in lithium-ion battery fires across the UK, metroSTOR BIKE-E Storage & Charging Lockers have been developed to provide a weather-protected external storage facility for e-bikes and e-scooters. Customisable for fire-resistant enclosure specification, options for an internal fireboard lining system ensure safe and secure containment in the unfortunate event of a battery fire.

For lithium-ion batteries and devices that have reached the end of their service life, or are no longer deemed safe for charging, they should always be recycled rather than disposed of in regular waste streams and sent to landfill. Damaged batteries should be removed from a product where necessary and placed in a sealed container, away from combustibles. When lithium-ion batteries need to be transported to a disposal point or HWRC, they should be properly packaged to ensure that they cannot be damaged in transit.

For communal bin stores, metroSTOR’s has developed a specific aperture, compatible with our existing range of PBM bin housings, for waste electrical items to help simplify the safe disposal of electrical devices containing lithium-ion batteries. The dedicated disposal point facilitates the separation of small to medium-sized devices within the housing, where items can then be collected and transferred to a local HWRC or an approved authorised treatment facility (AATF). Separate battery deposit boxes can also be fitted to the metroSTOR FX bin housing range to help introduce safe and convenient disposal points in communal settings.