One fun fact; if you are reading this on your screen, there’s a 95% chance that you are using a battery-powered gadget. It could be a phone, tablet, iPhone, iPad, laptop, or another device. The 5% goes to PC and any other option that requires you to plug in to operate.
What I mean is batteries power our electronic world. If you began to list the gadgets that run on batteries, I’m afraid you may not exploit the list. In recent days, we’ve seen them take the place of fuel in the auto industry – an innovation that has hit the ground running.
And yes, while they are a real boon in the electronic sphere, all isn’t sunshine and rainbows for batteries. That’s why you will almost ever notice a warning label, either on the packaging or the battery itself, especially against fire. Ever wondered whether that warning label actually means what it says? Well, let’s dig into it to find out!
Can Batteries Start a Fire?
Yes, batteries can start a fire. However, that will only happen when you overcharge, short-circuit, submerge them in water, or use the wrong charger. But when used properly, batteries will seldom start a fire.
So yes, the warning sign you see on batteries isn’t there for decoration purposes. It’s there to inform you what you risk experiencing in the event of misuse. With improper use, batteries can start a fire, and it can be dangerous when it happens.
For that reason, it’s always advisable to read the label sign on batteries. The good thing is that the warnings are short, clear, and will only take a couple of seconds for you to know what to do – and what to avoid – to dodge a catastrophe.
But that doesn’t mean batteries are dangerous by default.
No, not at all.
Everything has its upside and flipside. In most cases, the downside of something will only show when you use it the wrong way.
And yes, that’s what happens with batteries.
As long as you use them as the manufacturer recommends, batteries will do their work without causing any catastrophe.
However, with the wrong use, batteries can develop violent failures like fires, for instance.
In fact, fires from batteries are more common than you could think. A report by London Fire Brigade shows that of all the fire incidents they respond to weekly, 24 emanate from batteries and chargers.
But that doesn’t only happen in London alone. It occurs in all other parts of the world, with some areas having even a higher prevalence. In other words, batteries do cause fire, and it’s more likely to happen than you might think.
So, what’s the chemistry here?
What prompts the stored energy to turn into the fire?
Well, you could be thinking.
Let’s find out as well!
What Causes Batteries To Catch Fire?
Causes of batteries catching fire include manufacturing defects, design flaws, abnormal use, charger issues, low-quality components, to mention but a few. As such, always be careful with the batteries you buy, how you use them, what you use to charge them (if rechargeable), and how you dispose of them.
Battery fires just can’t be attributed to one cause. They can result from a thousand and one sources. Sometimes it’s the manufacturer’s fault. But more often, it’s users to carry the blame.
Let’s begin with the manufacturer!
During the manufacturing process, fault can come from foreign elements. When metal or any other impurity gets into the battery, it will affect how the cell works. And yes, sometimes it will go to the extent of compromising the safety aspect.
And now to the users’ side –
Here, the cause of the fire can be from the charging to use to disposal. For example, when using the wrong charger, it may charge more quickly than the anatomy of the battery is meant to support, increasing the chances of fire.
The same applies when you use or dispose of the cell wrongly.
But still, these aren’t the principal triggers of battery fires when it comes to the user.
So, what’s the common cause here?
Well, on the side of the user, most fires emanate from short-circuiting. Short-circuiting happens when positive and negative terminals of a battery contact each other through a pathway with very low or no impedance.
That may happen deliberately, for instance, when you use a wire to link the positive and negative terminals, or accidentally when there’s a series of metal objects connecting the two, for instance, coins in the pocket or metal objects in the drawer.
When short-circuiting happens, it forces the charged electrical ions to move more quickly from one electrode to another, causing the battery to become too hot.
It’s from the high temperature where the issue of fire now creeps in.
What Happens When Batteries Get Hot?
What happens when batteries get hot is that they will drain. The overheating is a sign of a battery discharging very quickly. When the process goes for quite long, the battery may get permanently damaged or excessively hot to the extent of burning the things around.
We’ve all experienced a moment when our phone batteries overheat, whether extreme or slightly than we would consider normal.
But what most people don’t know is that whether severe or slight, overheating isn’t a good sign, no matter the type of battery.
When you notice that your device battery is overheating, that should be a warning sign that there’s a problem with the cell, or at least with how you are doing things.
Let’s take a phone battery, for instance.
You may notice it overheating when playing games or running numerous apps simultaneously. The unusual temperature here is a sign that you are overworking your phone, forcing it to draw more power than your battery is designed to release at a time – and that could damage it in the short or long run.
What Happens If You Puncture AAA Battery?
Puncturing an AAA battery will damage the separator between the anode and cathode, bringing in contact the positively charged anode with the negatively charged cathode, and that causes an internal short circuit.
As you already know, any battery has two terminals.
There’s the anode and the cathode.
Now, for a cell to work well, the two terminals must remain apart, and that’s where a separator comes in.
A separator acts as a barrier between the anode and cathode, preventing the free flow of ions between the two terminals. In other words, without this membrane, charging batteries would be in vain.
Now, when you puncture an AAA battery, one of the areas likely to get affected is the separator.
When that happens, it causes charged electrons to flow to the cathode with minimal resistance, causing the battery to overheat and cause a fire.
Can AA Batteries Catch Fire?
AA batteries can definitely catch fire under “favorable” conditions. As long as the negative and positive posts of the cell come in contact with one another, internally from shock or externally through a bridging object, AA batteries will overheat and catch fire.
In fact, even used AA batteries with low voltage will catch fire. The moment the battery begins to overheat, the heat may build and ignite the things around, especially when this is happening in a confined space like a glove compartment.
As such, when storing batteries, follow the safety guidelines.
Some of the safety storage tips include;
- Applying tape over the posts
- Using plastic caps to cover the terminals
- Storing them in their original package when not in use
Can Lead-Acid Batteries Catch Fire?
While that’s not likely, lead-acid batteries can still catch fire. However, that will likely happen when they are charging. When charging, lead-acid batteries release hydrogen, a highly flammable gas.
So yes, if you are using lead-acid batteries, one of the things you have to be careful with is any source of static electricity releasing sparks when the battery is charging. The hydrogen from the battery is highly flammable and can combine with oxygen in the air to alight the things around.
But other than fire, lead-acid batteries are also likely to explode. But explosion happens when you overcharge them, use the wrong charger, charge them in a poorly-ventilated area, or in the event of internal or external shorting.
Can Car Batteries Catch Fire?
Yes, since they power electrical systems, car batteries can catch fire. But with good maintenance and a close eye on the condition of your car battery, fires are unlikely to erupt from these batteries.
Although generally safe, we can’t shy away from the fact that car batteries still stand the chance of catching on fire.
As a cautious car owner, always ensure that you check on the condition of the battery clamps every time you drive into a gas station.
Sometimes issues will spring up from leakage or loose battery. As such, always be vigilant enough to notice when your battery is leaking and when the holder becomes loose.
Can Lithium Batteries Catch Fire?
Lithium batteries are more susceptible to catching fires than most batteries. The electrolyte used in lithium batteries consists of lithium salts and organic solvents, with the latter boasting high flammability properties.
In addition, the positively charged electrode (anode) contains oxygen, a gas that supports combustion. When we combine that with the flammable electrolyte and the ability to develop an internal shorting, then we are safe to say that lithium batteries have all it takes to self-sustain fire.
A report by the waste and recycling industry shows that most of their fires emanate from batteries, especially the lithium-ion type.
Lithium-ion batteries can go into a thermal runaway, a process that produces heat. The heat produced here will usher in any adjacent batteries into the same mode, an occurrence that’s likely to result in fire.
While almost all batteries can catch fire, that’s not likely. Batteries will only stir up problems with improper use. Sometimes manufacturing flaws can increase the chances of the battery catching on fire. But with most companies having reliable quality control mechanisms in place, these faults seldom go unnoticed.