20 Mar 2024
How safe are lithium-ion batteries?

How safe are lithium-ion batteries?

  • Lithium-ion batteries are in many everyday devices
  • Lithium-ion battery fires can be hard to extinguish
  • Learn the warning signs to look out for

Power provided by lithium-ion batteries is now a common part of our everyday lives. From our mobile phones and laptops to electric vehicles (EVs), rechargeable lithium-ion batteries have become increasingly popular.

The global market for lithium-ion batteries is only going to grow over the coming decades, with a 27% annual growth forecast every year between now and 2030, with mobility devices (for example, EVs) accounting for most of this usage.1

That growth is understandable, given the positives associated with lithium-ion batteries. They’re lighter and smaller than alternatives, have high energy density and long lifespans.2

The risks associated with lithium-ion batteries

As lithium-ion batteries become more common, risks increase.

Between April 2017 and March 2023, the ACCC received 231 product safety reports relating to lithium-ion batteries. It has recorded 24 product recalls between January 2017 and December 2022, affecting an estimated 89,000 products.3

The ACCC also saw a 92% increase in reports of lithium-ion battery incidents from 2020 to 2022.4

Fires caused by a lithium-ion battery failure can be incredibly destructive, causing explosions and releasing toxic gas. This can lead to property damage, serious injury and even death.5

“QBE is starting to see claims directly related to lithium-ion batteries,” says Rod McDougall, Head of Short Tail Claims Supply Strategy at QBE.

“You just have to watch the news to see stories of battery fires from imported goods that aren’t as stable as they should be, and in both the home and with regard to EVs, lithium batteries need to be carefully looked after.”

Why are lithium-ion battery fires hard to extinguish?

The reason lithium-ion battery fires are so difficult to put out is due to thermal runaway. While water will cool the battery down, it won’t extinguish the fire until the energy stored in it has been used up – meaning fires may need to be left to burn out.6

Even when it appears to have been extinguished, a lithium-ion battery fire can reignite hours or even days later.7

“Lithium-battery fires can be incredibly difficult to put out as they burn at such high temperatures,” says Silvio Necco, Head of Motor Assessing and Supply Chain at QBE.

“This creates a serious risk in the home, and also in places like car parks, where cars are parked side by side.”

Why do lithium-ion battery fires occur?

Lithium-ion battery fires can occur for a number of reasons, including overheating, using the wrong charger, damage (like from being dropped), being involved in an accident, or being exposed to high external temperatures.8

This can result in the battery management system, which ensures the battery is working correctly, to fail.9

How to reduce the risk of lithium-ion battery fires

Here are a few things you can do to reduce the risk of lithium-ion battery fires:

  • Only use lithium-ion batteries specifically intended for use in Australia from reputable suppliers – batteries must have the Regulatory Compliance Mark to show they meet Australian Standards10
  • Monitor lithium-ion batteries for damage
  • Keep lithium-ion batteries away from heat or moisture
  • Don’t modify or repurpose products containing lithium-ion batteries
  • Always follow the correct charging procedures11
  • Avoiding purchasing lithium-ion batteries second-hand or online from vendors that are unknown and/or possibly unregulated12
Caution lithium battery sign

How to charge a lithium-ion battery safely

When using a lithium-ion battery charger, it’s important to follow the manufacturer’s instructions, monitor charging times and disconnect items from chargers when they’ve been fully charged, as overcharging can create excessive heat inside the battery cell.13

It's important to only use the charger designed for the product. Some online options may be well priced, but they’re not designed to control the amount of charge going into a specific product.14

“There are risks associated with using lithium batteries and chargers that aren’t approved for use with that specific device,” says McDougall.

“Any battery or lithium-ion battery charger you use must be tested and approved by the original equipment manufacturer.”

If you’re charging batteries for e-bikes, e-scooters or other light EVs, it’s advisable to avoid leaving them unattended while charging. Don’t charge them overnight – and don’t charge or store them on combustible or insulating surfaces.15

Light EVs should be charged outside in a garage, shed or carport, away from living spaces, and away from any highly flammable materials,16 while batteries should always be allowed to cool before recharging.17

What to avoid when charging lithium-ion batteries

Cordless vacuum cleaners, laptops, mobile phones and cordless power tools have lithium-ion batteries, and it’s essential to take care when charging them.

Things to keep in mind include:

  • Don’t charge on flammable surfaces like beds, sofas or blankets
  • Don’t use damaged chargers or cables
  • Only use chargers that have been supplied with, or are approved by, the manufacturer
  • Make sure the battery charger has the Regulatory Compliance Mark
  • Don’t leave items with batteries in hot cars
  • Don’t mix and match chargers and products containing lithium-ion batteries
  • Don’t charge power tools in living areas
  • Don’t charge an item that is hot
  • Don’t leave vacuum cleaners on charge – charge as you need it
  • Don’t charge equipment in a bedroom or an area that blocks your exit18

How to store lithium-ion batteries – and warning signs to look out for

Storing and handling lithium-ion batteries correctly is important too.

  • Keep batteries and equipment containing lithium-ion batteries in a dry place away from direct sunlight
  • Store them away from flammable materials
  • Only buy replacement batteries from the original supplier

If your lithium-ion batteries are displaying any of the following signs, it’s important to replace either the battery (with a replacement from or approved by the manufacturer) or the product.

Signs of lithium-ion battery failure include:

  • overheating
  • swelling
  • discolouration
  • leaking
  • abnormal popping, hissing or crackling sounds19
  • emitting an odour20

What to do if you suspect a lithium-ion battery fire

If a smaller device or battery begins overheating:

  • Unplug it
  • Avoid inhaling smoke or fumes
  • If possible, move to an area away from combustible materials, windows and doors
  • If safe to do so, small devices can be placed in a bucket of clean, cool water
  • Fire and Rescue states small flames can be doused with water – a bucket or garden hose – ensuring the device is unplugged from mains power21
  • Call 000 – even if the flames seem to have been extinguished, the device could reignite22

Electric vehicle lithium-ion battery safety

One of the growing uses of lithium-ion batteries is, of course, EVs – which bring with them a number of new risks.

EV fires have made the news – including an incident in September 2023, when a luxury EV that was parked at Sydney Airport spontaneously burst into flames, destroying four nearby cars.

“This is the great unknown with regard to electric vehicles,” says Necco. “We don’t know how frequent these incidents will be, and it’s something that everyone will need to watch carefully as electric vehicles become more common.”

One of the risks with lithium-ion batteries is relatively minor damage, rendering them dangerous – which has implications for EVs.

“EV manufacturers are understandably erring on the side of caution, and given the cost of replacing an EV battery, many EVs could be written off with minor battery damage, rather than be repaired,” says Necco.

With more EV sales come more EV home chargers, and just as with other household devices, it’s essential that EVs are charged with care, in line with manufacturers’ recommendations.

Key things to consider when installing an EV charger at home

  • Ensure your charging equipment is compliant
  • Chargers must be installed by a licensed electrician in line with the Electrical Wiring Rules
  • Consider installing a fire alarm in your garage/carport
  • Make sure the area in which you’re installing the charger is well-ventilated

There are a number of safety considerations when it comes to installing an EV charger at home. These include ensuring that the charging station is connected with its own cable, the right cable is used for the EV charging load, and the appropriate circuit breakers are installed.23

These are all considerations your qualified electrician should be able to advise on.

“It’s essential to always read the manufacturer’s instructions and warnings,” says Necco. “EVs and chargers come with very good documentation, and it’s important you treat the vehicle with caution – after all, it’s a live electrical unit.”

In NSW, a label signifying a vehicle is an electric or hybrid must be attached to number plates, and labels are available from any Service NSW office.24

How to safely dispose of lithium-ion batteries

Lithium-ion batteries cannot be disposed of in your regular garbage collection, as they can cause fires during waste collection and processing.

Small, undamaged batteries can be disposed of at a battery recycling point, while damaged batteries can be placed in a clear plastic bag and taken to community recycling centres or a local chemical cleanout event.25

When it comes to electric vehicles, meanwhile, what happens to EVs at their end of life is a challenge that is yet to be negotiated – and one that needs serious consideration moving forward, says Necco.

Safety first when using lithium-ion batteries

While lithium-ion batteries do present a fire risk, they are generally safe to use in line with manufacturer’s guidelines, with approved chargers, and when approved for use in Australia.

By being mindful of the warning signs, including overheating, not overcharging batteries, and taking precautions, such as not leaving batteries charging near flammable materials, you can reduce the risk of your lithium-ion device creating a problem.

1 Lithium-ion battery demand forecast for 2030 – McKinsey
2 Lithium-Ion Battery – Clean Energy Institute – University of Washington
3 Lithium-ion batteries and consumer product safety – ACCC Report
4 Lithium-ion batteries – Product Safety Australia
5 Lithium-ion batteries and consumer product safety – ACCC Report
6 Tesla lithium battery fire hits ‘landmark’ Queensland energy project, sparking political debate – Queensland – The Guardian
7 Seven things you need to know about lithium-ion battery safety – UNSW
8 Seven things you need to know about lithium-ion battery safety – UNSW
9 Seven things you need to know about lithium-ion battery safety – UNSW
10 The Regulatory Compliance Mark (RCM) (General) – EESS
11 Lithium-ion batteries and consumer product safety – ACCC Report
12 Seven things you need to know about lithium-ion battery safety – UNSW
13 Seven things you need to know about lithium-ion battery safety – UNSW
14 Seven things you need to know about lithium-ion battery safety – UNSW
15 E-bikes, e-scooters, and other light electric vehicles (LEV) – Fire and Rescue NSW
16 Lithium-ion Batteries – ACT Emergency Services Agency
17 Lithium-ion battery safety – Energy Safe Victoria
18 Lithium-ion battery safety – Energy Safe Victoria
19 What should I do if my battery is smoking or on fire? – Fire and Rescue NSW
20 Lithium-ion battery safety – Energy Safe Victoria
21 What should I do if my battery is smoking or on fire? – Fire and Rescue NSW
22 What should I do if my battery is smoking or on fire? – Fire and Rescue NSW
23 EV Charger Installation Guide – EVSE Australia
24 Electric vehicles – Fire and Rescue NSW
25 How can I recycle my used batteries? – Fire and Rescue NSW

This advice is general in nature and has been prepared without taking into account your objectives, financial situation or needs and may not be right for you. You must decide whether or not it is appropriate, in light of your own circumstances, to act on this advice. To decide if QBE’s products are right for you, please ensure you obtain and consider the Policy Wording or Product Disclosure Statements and Target Market Determinations, available online at QBE.com/au. Insurance issued and underwritten by QBE Insurance (Australia) Limited (ABN 78 003 191 035, AFSL 239545).

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