Is Lithium Flammable? Battery Explosions (2022)

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Until fairly recently, lithium popped into our lives only in school science lessons and in movies about mental health issues. Today, of course, lithium has revolutionized the tech industry and it’s in the batteries of every device from an Apple iPhone to a brand-new Tesla Mark 3. But have we invited a huge fire risk into our lives in our quest for light, portable and powerful batteries?

Lithium can catch fire fairly easily and burn intensely. It will spontaneously combust (auto-ignition) at about 354 degrees Fahrenheit ( Celsius). It can even cause explosions in certain circumstances.

In this article, we will take a closer look at lithium and how it handles heat and fire, how lithium and lithium-ion batteries can be a fire hazard, and what you need to know to stay safe around this technology. Here is what you need to know.

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Also read: What Makes Something Flammable?

Table of Contents

  • What Is Lithium?
    • Is Lithium Flammable?
    • How Does It Catch Fire?
  • Can Lithium Batteries Catch Fire?
    • How Hot Can A Lithium Battery Get?
    • Do Lithium Batteries Need To Be Heated?
    • Can A Lithium Battery Freeze?
    • What Temperature Do Lithium Batteries Stop Working?
  • What Happens If You Shoot A Lithium-Ion Battery?
  • How Likely Is A Lithium Battery To Explode?
  • Can You Completely Discharge A Lithium-Ion Battery?
    • Can A Discharged Lithium Battery Explode?
  • How Do You Stop A Lithium-Ion Battery From Exploding?
  • What Happens If You Breathe In Lithium?
    • Sources
    • Related Articles

What Is Lithium?

Is Lithium Flammable? Battery Explosions (1)

Lithium is the third element in the periodic table and it’s the first solid (the two before are gasses) and it is also the lightest metal.

It is an alkali metal and shares the same period as sodium, potassium, cesium, etc. which means that it is a very reactive element and to keep it from reacting it must be stored in non-reactive mineral oil (or if budget’s not an issue, you can also keep it in a vacuum or even in an inert atmosphere.

Lithium reacts so quickly in the air that it tarnishes very quickly, if you cut a piece of lithium, you will find a silver-grey surface that quickly blackens as it oxidizes.

(Video) Lithium Ion Batteries: Why They Explode

Because of its reactivity, it cannot be found in its pure form in nature, and lithium is found in compounds in the form of minerals.

To produce lithium, the easiest thing to do is to carry out electrolysis on a solution of lithium chloride and potassium chloride, which can be extracted from seawater.

The number one use for lithium today is in batteries but it is also used in industry in various ways including as a lubricant, to create heat-resistance glass and ceramic items, and to be used in the production of many metals.

Lithium is also still used in medicine where it appears to have a strong benefit to those people suffering from bipolar disorder and can help them to stabilize their mood.

Also read: How To Put Out An Electrical (Class C) Fire: Firefighter Approved

Is Lithium Flammable?

Lithium can be flammable, as it can catch fire at relatively low temperatures. It is also a fairly reactive element.

However, it will burn very easily in the presence of oxygen (which is why it tarnishes so easily without any heat at all) and is considered to be very combustible.

It might not be the easiest thing to set fire to but it’s not far off it, either.

You can learn more about lithium and fire in this video:

Also read: Is Iron Flammable? Sometimes…

How Does It Catch Fire?

Lithium reacts violently on exposure to water, rather like its periodic table maters sodium and potassium do, the reaction is highly exothermic (that is it produces a lot of heat) and this can cause the lithium to burn, as well as anything nearby.

(Video) Are Lithium Batteries Dangerous? Is it safe to drive Tesla Car?

That’s why it’s important to avoid handling pure lithium with your bare hands, the moisture in your skin (particularly if you’ve been sweating) is enough to trigger this reaction and you could get severely burned.

Can Lithium Batteries Catch Fire?

Lithium-ion batteries contain a liquid and in that liquid are lots of tiny bits of lithium (lithium ions, in fact) and in normal operation, this is just fine.

The lithium is sealed off from the air and any moisture in it and thus, it doesn’t have an opportunity to catch fire.

However, if the battery is pierced, not only can moisture from outside get in and react with the lithium but often the other half of the cell, which does contain water, will be pierced too and the lithium will suddenly be dumped into the water.

In this instance, a lithium battery can quickly catch fire and it’s one of the reasons that you’re not allowed to store lithium batteries in your hold luggage on a plane.

They’re worried that an accident in the hold might damage the battery, among other things, and set a fire that they can’t put out.

It is important to use the proper methods for extinguishing a lithium battery fire, read this article for more info: The Best Fire Extinguisher for Lithium-Ion Batteries – 2021

How Hot Can A Lithium Battery Get?

A lithium battery, under normal operation, should operate between 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) and 55 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).

However, if the battery catches fire, then we’re talking 1000 degrees Fahrenheit (538 degrees Celsius)as the heat of the fire and that’s not the only risk, depending on how the fire started, the battery may also explode and shower the area around it in 1000 degree shrapnel which is ideal for starting further fires.

This video goes into more detail about lithium-ion batteries:

Also read: Can Batteries Catch On Fire? Do They Ever Explode?

(Video) Examples of Lithium Battery Fires

Do Lithium Batteries Need To Be Heated?

A lithium battery does not need to be heated to provide the best possible performance.

In fact, lithium batteries perform best at ordinary room temperatures and extremes of heat (either hot or cold) can cause more rapid discharges.

Can A Lithium Battery Freeze?

A lithium-ion battery performs better than the equivalent lead-acid battery at temperatures below freezing, and in fact, you can get about 80% of the charge from one at this temperature.

It is worth noting that this performance degradation in the cold is why professional photographers end up carrying pockets full of batteries on colder shoots.

What Temperature Do Lithium Batteries Stop Working?

Your lithium batteries will stop working at about -20 degrees Celsius or -4 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s pretty cold and we’d recommend that if you intend to get caught in temperatures like that, that you wrap up very warm and don’t worry too much about using your iPhone.

What Happens If You Shoot A Lithium-Ion Battery?

Given that a punctured lithium-ion battery is both a fire and explosion risk, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that you greatly increase the risk of explosion and practically guarantee a fire, if you should shoot a lithium-ion battery.

We don’t recommend that you attempt this either, you have no control over where shrapnel would land and it remains hot for a very, very long period following the initial explosion making it hard to manage if it represents a further fire risk.

How Likely Is A Lithium Battery To Explode?

Lithium battery scientists say that there’s roughly a 1 in 1 million chance of any given lithium battery exploding by itself due to an internal fault.

And that most of these fires will happen long after the battery has been disposed of.

In fact, they say that you have much better odds of being struck by lightning than being caught in a battery fire.

We say that given that both Apple and Samsung have released consumer products with a much higher chance of fire than usual, we’d give new products a few weeks before you buy them, then if they do explode, it won’t be on you.

Can You Completely Discharge A Lithium-Ion Battery?

You can completely discharge any battery but the question is more “should you” than “can you” and it’s fair to say that fully discharging lithium-ion batteries is a bad idea.

(Video) Dangerous vs. Safe batteries, Explosion and fire test!

Full discharge means that the reaction within the cell is completely exhausted and it is hard to reverse this reaction using a new charge.

It can seriously damage the longevity of a battery to be fully discharged.

The good news?

Even when your battery meter says “0%!” there’s still some charge in your battery, you have to work fairly hard to completely discharge one.

Can A Discharged Lithium Battery Explode?

Yes, in fact, even though a discharged lithium battery should be more chemically stable, it’s still full of lithium ions and they can react with water still, no problem at all.

How Do You Stop A Lithium-Ion Battery From Exploding?

Turn off your devices when they are not in use and keep lithium batteries away from other batteries which can cause them to explode.

If you must remove the battery from the device, put it in a special storage container – lithium batteries can explode in your pockets if they come into contact with your keys or coins!

What Happens If You Breathe In Lithium?

Lithium whether as a powder or gas is highly reactive and if you breathe it in, it will react with the water in your lungs and throat.

Even small quantities can lead to shortness of breath, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach pain.

Large quantities can lead to pulmonary edema (that is fluid in the lungs), choking, and death.

Try not to breathe lithium.

Sources

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14

(Video) Lithium Batteries Dropped in Water! TKOR Exploding Lithium Battery Experiment!

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FAQs

Can lithium batteries cause explosions? ›

Lithium batteries are the most common rechargeable batteries today and power many devices and appliances, such as cell phones, laptops, and even electric cars. Although generally safe, lithium batteries can explode or burst into flames, causing severe injuries.

How likely is a lithium battery to explode? ›

But in reality, lithium battery fires are rare. According to the tech reporting site CNET, your odds of a lithium battery fire are about 1 in 10 million.

Are lithium batteries considered flammable? ›

Like all alkali metals, lithium is highly reactive and flammable. Lithium batteries, or primary batteries, are single use and incapable of recharge. They contain lithium metal which is highly combustible. Common applications include military use, medical applications, and certain consumer electronics.

What happens if a lithium battery explodes? ›

A lithium-ion battery explosion can result in severe burns and, in rare cases, even death. Lithium-ion battery explosions can be caused by manufacturing defects in the original battery or by contact with metal objects that cause an external short-circuit.

Do lithium batteries explode exposed to air? ›

The battery can eventually hit temperatures of more than 1,000° F. At that point the flammable electrolyte can ignite or even explode when exposed to the oxygen in the air.

What are the dangers of a lithium battery? ›

Lithium batteries are generally safe and unlikely to fail, but only so long as there are no defects and the batteries are not damaged. When lithium batteries fail to operate safely or are damaged, they may present a fire and/or explosion hazard.

How long does it take for a lithium battery to explode? ›

A pack can thus be destroyed in a few seconds or over several hours as each cell is being consumed. To increase safety, packs should include dividers to protect the failing cell from spreading to the neighboring one. The gas released by a venting Li-ion cell is mainly carbon dioxide (CO2).

How many fires are caused by lithium batteries? ›

If they've been damaged or have some kind of defect, they can cause devastating fires. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reported that there were more than 25,000 issues involving fires or overheating stemming from lithium ion batteries in a five-year period.

Is it OK to touch a lithium battery? ›

Lithium should be handled WITH EXTREME CAUTION.

What type of battery is extremely flammable? ›

When lithium-ion batteries fail they can undergo thermal runaway. This involves violent bursting of one or multiple battery cells, hissing and release of toxic, flammable and explosive gases, and an intense, self-sustaining fire that can be difficult to extinguish.

Why are lithium batteries not allowed on planes? ›

Lithium batteries can produce dangerous heat levels, cause ignition, short circuit very easily, and cause inextinguishable fires. That's why renowned aviation authorities, including those in the USA, have banned lithium batteries when traveling.

Why do lithium batteries start fires? ›

Technically, lithium-ion batteries catch fire due to anomaly in their constituent elements – electrolyte consisting organic solvents, oxygen-rich cathode, flammable gases. To minimize the risk, keep EV under a shade, Store at dry places, and let it cool down before charging again.

How do you stop a lithium battery fire? ›

Traditional fire extinguishers, such as foam and water, don't work on lithium battery fires. The only way to extinguish a lithium battery fire is to flood the battery with water. A Lithium Fire Blanket will safely isolate a lithium fire battery for hours, until it can be flooded and extinguished.

What happens if lithium is exposed to air? ›

Lithium burns with a strongly red-tinged flame if heated in air. It reacts with oxygen in the air to give white lithium oxide. With pure oxygen, the flame would simply be more intense. For the record, it also reacts with the nitrogen in the air to give lithium nitride.

What happens when lithium touches air? ›

Reaction of Lithium and Water - YouTube

Are lithium batteries safer than lead? ›

Lead-acid batteries should only be run to 50% depth of discharge. Beyond that point, you risk negatively affecting their lifespan. In contrast, lithium batteries can handle deep discharges of 80% or more. This essentially means they feature a higher usable capacity.

Which is the safest battery? ›

Today, lithium-ion is one of the most successful and safe battery chemistries available. Two billion cells are produced every year. Lithium-ion cells with cobalt cathodes hold twice the energy of a nickel-based battery and four-times that of lead acid.

Which battery does not explode? ›

Lithium-ion power cells, first commercialized by Sony in 1991, enable nearly every 21st century convenience: Phones, laptops, wireless headphones, cordless power tools -- even electric vehicles.

What class of fire is a lithium battery? ›

Lithium-ion batteries are considered a Class B fire, so a standard ABC or dry chemical fire extinguisher should be used. Class B is the classification given to flammable liquids. Lithium-ion batteries contain liquid electrolytes that provide a conductive pathway, so the batteries receive a Class B fire classification.

Can I take lithium-ion batteries on a plane 2022? ›

Spare (uninstalled) lithium ion and lithium metal batteries, including power banks and cell phone battery charging cases, must be carried in carry-on baggage only.

Can I put a lithium battery in my suitcase? ›

Spare (uninstalled) lithium metal batteries and lithium ion batteries, electronic cigarettes and vaping devices are prohibited in checked baggage. They must be carried with the passenger in carry-on baggage.

What happens if you have a lithium battery in checked luggage? ›

A: The bags are scanned for security, not specifically for lithium batteries. If you leave a lithium battery in your bag it will travel with you. It is safer for the battery to be in the cabin so that if a thermal runaway occurs the cabin crew can deal with it.

Do lithium batteries ever cause plane crashes? ›

The FAA instituted regulations controlling the transport of Li-ion batteries as commercial cargo after an onboard fire caused the fatal crash of UPS Airlines Flight 6 in 2010.

Can a lithium battery explode from overcharging? ›

These ions move through a liquid electrolyte which is highly flammable – and that is why when one overcharges a lithium-ion battery, it overheats and can even explode. To demonstrate, Dr Balaya overcharged a single battery cell, applying more than 5 volts instead of the recommended 4.3 volts.

How many fires are caused by lithium batteries? ›

If they've been damaged or have some kind of defect, they can cause devastating fires. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reported that there were more than 25,000 issues involving fires or overheating stemming from lithium ion batteries in a five-year period.

How do you stop a lithium-ion battery from exploding? ›

Minimizing the Risk of Lithium-ion battery Fires
  1. Avoid storing at high temperatures. The batteries, or any equipment using one, must be kept away from high temperatures. ...
  2. Avoid keeping all items containing lithium-ion batteries together. ...
  3. Avoid overcharging. ...
  4. Keep EV under a shade. ...
  5. Store dry. ...
  6. Let it cool.
5 May 2022

Why do airports ask if you have lithium batteries? ›

Lithium batteries, which power everyday devices, can catch fire if damaged or if battery terminals are short-circuited. Devices containing lithium metal batteries or lithium ion batteries, including – but not limited to – smartphones, tablets, cameras and laptops, should be kept in carry-on baggage.

How often do lithium batteries catch fire on planes? ›

The FAA reports that, on average, one of these fires occurs every 10 days. Here's what passengers need to know.

Why do they say no lithium batteries on planes? ›

Lithium batteries can produce dangerous heat levels, cause ignition, short circuit very easily, and cause inextinguishable fires. That's why renowned aviation authorities, including those in the USA, have banned lithium batteries when traveling.

What is the biggest cause of lithium-ion batteries exploding? ›

While lithium-ion batteries have built-in protections to stop them from overcharging, using unofficial chargers can damage the battery in the long term. In addition to manufacturing defects, using low-quality components is one of the highest causes of battery failures.

Is it OK to leave a lithium-ion battery on the charger overnight? ›

There's nothing dangerous about keeping your phone charged overnight, and modern phones and laptops include mechanisms for minimizing the strain on the battery if your device is plugged in all the time.

What happens if you leave a lithium battery on charge? ›

Lithium-ion batteries can be used until 20% of their capacity remains. Unlike lead acid batteries, it won't damage the battery to utilize opportunity charging, which means a user could plug the battery in during a lunch break to top off the charge and finish their shift without the battery getting too low.

At what temperature does lithium explode? ›

The temperature can quickly reach 500C (932F), at which point the cell catches fire or it explodes. This thermal runaway that occurs is known as “venting with flame.” “Rapid disassembly” is the preferred term by the battery industry. Uneven separators can also trigger cell failure.

What do you do when a lithium battery catches on fire? ›

For best results dousing a lithium-ion fire, use a foam extinguisher, CO2, ABC dry chemical, powdered graphite, copper powder, or soda (sodium carbonate) as you would extinguish other combustible fires. Reserve the Class D extinguishers for lithium-metal fires only.

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