Lithium-Ion Batteries Pose More Than Just One Peril

Credit: TTClub

TT Club urges heightened awareness of swift, unexpected toxic gas emissions from lithium-ion battery fires, which often leave no time for response due to their abrupt nature.

Thermal Runaway

Recent incidents highlight the dire consequences of fast-spreading, challenging-to-extinguish fires involving batteries, especially in EVs on ships and throughout the supply chain.

There’s limited awareness about the swift release of highly toxic combustion byproducts and their impact on people’s health. These dangers stem from a process called thermal runaway, with toxic vapor discharges occurring in seconds, not minutes, once a battery ignites due to an internal short circuit, resulting in a rapid and dangerous chain reaction.

Toxic Gas Threat

Neil Dalus of TT endeavors to paint a picture of the dangers:

“During a lithium battery thermal runaway event, research has shown that significant amounts of vapor can be produced per kWh.  In many common supply chain scenarios, including ships’ holds and warehouses, the reality is that such vapor clouds are likely to accumulate. Even when the clouds are able to disperse, the potential toxic effects may occur at lower concentrations.”


Credit: Journal of Loss Prevention in the Process Industries 80 (2022)

Drivers, stevedores, ship crews, and first responders tackling these fires often face what seems like smoke but is actually a rapidly produced, dense mix of toxic gases that behave differently from smoke by accumulating at ground level.

“Traditionally where fires and smoke are concerned one would stay low to avoid inhalation, doing so where lithium battery fires are concerned is likely to prove problematic,”observes Dalus.

Silent Toxic Threats

  • Toxic gases emitted by lithium-ion batteries differ from typical fires but are consistently poisonous or combustible. They can contain hydrogen, hydrogen fluoride (HF), hydrogen chloride, hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and methane, posing grave dangers.
  • Hydrogen fluoride (HF) is particularly concerning. It may disperse in the air but can form a heavier-than-air vapor and aerosol cloud. HF exposure, through inhalation or skin contact, leads to skin burns and lung damage, which can develop over hours to weeks.
  • HF absorption depletes vital calcium and magnesium, potentially causing severe systemic effects, even fatalities. The hydrogen content also creates vapor cloud explosion risks, with the potential for significant damage.

Mitigation Strategies

TT recommends mitigating lithium-ion battery risks with a fire risk assessment, considering battery-specific hazards. Mitigation measures include providing certified self-contained breathing apparatus, protective gear, and decontamination showers. Additionally, strategic placement of firefighting equipment and early detection through cameras and thermal imaging are crucial, especially in warehouses storing such batteries.

Comments of Dalus:

“Given the hazardous nature of this vapor, if any of these measures are not in place then the best course of action is to evacuate the area and leave the incident response to the emergency services, ensuring that the known risks are appropriately communicated.”

The gases produced potentially leave toxic deposits on all surfaces and in the atmosphere. Therefore, once the incident is under control, potential hazards remain.

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Source : TT Club


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