Battery Fires

Batteries are widely used in a variety of devices and because they are so common, people may not be aware of some dangers they may be exposed to when handling certain types of batteries. Two immediate dangers are:

  1. fire or explosion due to a short circuit or improper charging and
  2. leakage of corrosive liquid.

Other dangers include the release of toxic materials into the environment if not disposed of properly.

Kinds of Batteries: 

Batteries may be grouped into dry cells and wet cells based on whether they contain a moist solid or are liquid or gel filled. They may also be divided into primary and secondary depending on whether they may be recharged. 

Primary: Non-rechargeable, discard when exhausted. All primary batteries are dry cells.
carbon zinc - flashlights
alkaline - flashlights, toys, clocks
lithium (primary) - cameras and watches
zinc oxide, silver oxide and mercuric oxide - packaged as button cells, used in calculators, watches, hearing aids; often contain some mercury Secondary: rechargeable cells   nickel cadmium (NiCad) - power tools, emergency lighting 
nickel metal hydride (NiMH)-digital cameras, appliances, radios, hybrid vehicles
lithium ion - laptop computers, cell phones, video cameras
small sealed lead acid (SSLA) - electric wheelchairs, electric bikes, power supplies
lead acid - automotive and other vehicles, deep charge

Fire and explosion:

A battery has two (or more) terminals to deliver power to the device and if these terminals become connected (shorted out) via a material with low resistance (e.g. a piece of metal) then a very large current can flow between the terminals and a lot of heat is generated within the battery. A short may also occur inside the battery due to manufacturing defects or physical damage to the cell. In both cases (external or internal short), the battery can get very hot and may catch fire and explode. 
Even small batteries can contain a lot of energy and if this is released quickly due to a short circuit, a lot of heat may be produced which generates gas that may include hydrogen (highly flammable). For example, a 3.6-volt mobile phone battery rated at 1 Amp-hour (Ah) contains 12,960 Joules of energy. A capacitor (electronic component) holding 10 joules can blow a hole through aluminum foil and a 30 Joule discharge can weld a wire to ball bearing. A 3.6 volt Lithium ion automotive cell rated at 200 Ah contains 2,592,000 Joules which is a huge amount of power.

A 9-volt alkaline battery can generate about 9 Amps of current if the terminals are connected together and the battery temperature can rise 60 to 94C within about 7 minutes [NASA Public Lessons Learned series]. A lithium ion battery that shorts out may reach 120C (Safety first -- Why all lithium batteries are not the same).

Car batteries are designed to deliver a lot of current (hundreds of amps) quickly for starting the motor. A note in Popular Mechanics magazine in March 2007 [Car Battery Do's a Don'ts] describes how a person working on a car battery touched the positive terminal with a wrench he was holding. The short circuit welded a ring on his finger to the battery hold down clamp and to the wrench. If you are removing a car battery, always remove the negative terminal first before touching the clamp on the positive terminal. This is because the negative terminal on most North American vehicles is connected to the engine and frame so touching the positive terminal to any metal on the car will allow current to flow. If you remove the connection between the negative terminal and the car metal, you have eliminated a huge area where a short circuit can occur. When installing a battery, connect the positive terminal first, and the negative terminal last.

There have been numerous instances of lithium ion batteries overheating and exploding causing fires. Lithium ion batteries are designed to store large amounts of energy per unit weight and are preferred for things like laptop computers and cell phones. In 2006, Dell computer recalled 4.1 million notebook Li-ion batteries and other manufacturers had recalls too. 
As of January 2008, the US Department of Transportation is limiting the number of lithium batteriescarried on aircraft by passengers. Basically you can have a battery installed in a device (carry on or checked luggage) and you can have a spare in carry-on luggage if the terminals are covered. You cannot have loose lithium batteries in checked luggage. There are also size restrictions so that you cannot carry lithium batteries with a capacity over 300 watt-hours. See the FAQ page and chart from the FAA (pdf file) and the SafeTravel web pages.
The reason for these restrictions is due to the many battery incidents that have occurred such as:
  • 2007 Feb JFK International airport - battery fire in a carry-on passenger bag
  • 2006 May - fire in airplane on the ground from a spare Li ion battery in a computer bag.
  • 2004 April, Chicago- fire in passenger bag before being loaded onto the aircraft. Bag contained a cordless drill with a NiCd battery and the drill overheated when it got turned on.
  • 2003 Logan Airport - over heated battery found in a toolbox. It is believed that batteries terminals shorted out on metal tools.
  • CR123A lithium batteries have been involved in several fires. These are 3-3.6 volt small cylindrical batteries used in cameras and several have ignited fires or exploded spontaneously or when dropped. Some incidents involve poorly manufactured counterfeit batteries coming from countries in Asia.

Check out some photos and video clips of events at airports Battery Fires in Air Transportation (PDF)

Closer to home, in October 2007, a fire occurred in the back of a University truck returning from a field site. The fire appeared to have started in a bag/box of various batteries and was likely caused by a 9-volt alkaline battery shorting out on some piece of metal or another battery. The fire burned up research notes, personal clothing, equipment and might have been much worse if the propane tanks (one full, three empty) had become involvedBattery terminals should be taped and cells immobilized by strapping together as in image 6.

Recommendations for Battery Storage and Transport:

In order to avoid potential fires from battery terminals shorting out, batteries should be packed so that terminals cannot be connected. Leave in the original packaging or for all batteries over 2 volts, cover the terminals with an insulator (electrical tape across both terminals). Do not simply throw loose batteries into a bin or plastic bag with terminals exposed. Even with the terminals taped, it is better to immobilize the cells by packing in a box so the batteries cannot move around.
This applies to all batteries, new and used, unless you have measured the terminal voltage and shown it to be zero. The only batteries that might be bagged without taping the terminals are the 1.5 volt cylindrical batteries (AAA, AA, C and D cells) which by virtue of their terminal orientation are unlikely to short out against each other, however, don't toss a metal chain or bare wire into the bag as these cells can produce currents of 10 Amps and overheat if shorted out [NASA Public Lessons Learned series].
If a battery has a protective cap, leave it in place until the battery is installed in a device.

Other Do's and Don'ts:
Isolate and dispose of any batteries that are physically damaged or show signs of swelling or smelling "funny". 
Dispose of any battery that is punctured, deformed or that might be damaged
Remove and dispose of any battery that gets excessively warm while recharging.
Never charge a battery that is frozen. Warm to room temperature first.

Charging Batteries:

Jump starting a vehicle battery: 
Potential hazards associated with this procedure include shorting out the battery terminals, an explosion of hydrogen gas released from the battery and ignited, exposure to shrapnel and sulfuric acid release if battery blows up and damage to vehicle electronic components.
There is a procedure described here [Battery Safety & Jump Starting] for jump-starting a vehicle with the steps listed in sequence. Although it does not specify the disconnect procedure in step 7, simply undo the connections in the reverse sequence (i.e. 4, 3, 2, 1). The sequence is designed to avoid making sparks near the battery terminals when flammable hydrogen gas may be present.

Charging automotive batteries:
Hydrogen gas is evolved during the charging process and any spark could easily ignite it causing the battery to explode and release the sulfuric acid inside. Follow the manufacturer's instructions for connecting the charger, charging and disconnecting the charger and do it in a ventilated space with no flames or sparking equipment (e.g. electric motors) in the area. The color-coded wires are clamped to the battery first and then the power is connected to the charger. When finished, this power is disconnected before either of the clamps on the battery terminal are removed. Again, the procedure attempts to avoid sparks near the battery terminals where hydrogen gas may occur. If the charger is plugged in to a 120 volt supply and the clips are then connected to the battery terminals, there will be sparking. Whenever possible, run the "trickle charge" mode on a battery charger - takes longer but generates less heat and H2gas.Detailed instructions are here.

Charging other batteries:
Follow the manufacturers recommendations and be sure that you have the correct charger for the battery. Primary cells are not designed for recharging and they may explode if you try to charge them.

Battery Disposal and Recycling:

There are some very toxic/corrosive materials in some batteries that should be prevented from being released into a landfill or water system. Large amounts of lead and sulfuric acid occur in automotive batteries and toxic elements like cadmium and mercury occur in NiCd and some button style batteries. Although there are not any very toxic substances in alkaline, lithium or carbon-Zinc batteries, it would seem prudent to avoid disposing of these into regular garbage. Environment Canada has some information about batteries and recycling. The University of Alberta collects batteries for disposal through its waste chemical disposal system (Chematix) and the City of Edmonton accepts batteries from households at its Eco-Station waste recycling depots. 
At the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC) website, you can locate outlets that accept rechargeble batteries for recycling.
More information on how toxic metals are recovered during battery recycling is available at the Battery University website].