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FAQ - Extinguishing Fires caused by Lithium-ion Batteries

Guidelines, information and answers to questions about Lithium batteries, the fire hazards they can cause, Emme Lith-M certified extinguishers:

The characteristics to be borne in mind when having an electronic device are:

The main fire hazards of lithium batteries are linked to their constitution, mainly related to their protective layer (casing) and how they are used. The main risks are:

There are mainly two types of lithium batteries:

The size of the batteries is related to the energy demand of the user device. The performance, in terms of charging/discharging of 'secondary' type batteries, change over time and are subject to degradation even when not in use.

Lithium batteries, if handled or stored incorrectly, can pose a safety risk to operators and environments.

Some common fire hazards are:

Many studies are being carried out by research centres that are conducting research and experiments into the containment and prevention of fire risks from lithium batteries. To date, however, there are only guidelines dictated by the various manufacturers and/or users of lithium battery equipment with basic precautions.

As of today (March 2023), there is no European or national regulation classifying fires from lithium batteries.

Electric cars have a high battery capacity and you cannot contain the flames with a simple portable or wheeled fire extinguisher. The difficulty in extinguishing electric vehicles is in reaching the battery position and much extinguishing agent goes missing from the vehicle structure.

The portable fire extinguishers tested by Emme Antincendio srl on lithium batteries are of different extinguishing capacities. We used the amount present inside the tested battery, expressed in Wh, as a benchmark. We were able to contain and extinguish the fire with a portable extinguisher with 6 litres of extinguishing agent in a 750 Wh battery.

The wheeled extinguishers tested by Emme Antincendio srl on lithium batteries have different extinguishing capacities. We used the quantity inside the tested battery, expressed in Wh, as a benchmark. We were able to contain and extinguish the fire with a wheeled extinguisher with 50 litres of extinguishing agent in a 5.1 kWh battery.

In Circular 2/2018, the Ministry of the Interior, Fire Department, issued guidelines for the installation of electric vehicle charging infrastructure and it is indicated that the charging station must be equipped with portable fire extinguishers suitable for use on live electrical systems or equipment, in addition to those already provided, at the rate of one for every 5 connection points or fraction, placed in a signposted, safe and easily accessible position. Since there are still no national or European standards regulating which fire extinguisher is most suitable, we recommend that you go for fire extinguishers that are approved and certified in accordance with the standards in force, and that have performed, even experimentally, their behaviour on lithium batteries such as the models in the Emme Antincendio srl catalogue.

Fire class E was repealed with the entry into force of EN 3/7:2005, as these types of fire are class A and B. Only for water-/foam-based extinguishers is a DIELECTRIC test required to check whether the water-/foam-based extinguisher is suitable for use on fires involving electrical equipment. Fires involving lithium batteries do not belong to this fire class.

Batteries in small electric vehicles are categorised as medium-capacity batteries with an amount of energy greater than 100 Wh and weighing 12 kg or less. In the case of devices that use lithium batteries that are regularly charged, it is always advisable to install a portable fire extinguisher near the charging area that can be used in the event of a fire starting.

The regulations do not apply to private homes, but on the basis of the guidelines published by the Ministry of the Interior, Fire Brigade Department, for electric vehicle charging infrastructure, it is always advisable to have a fire extinguisher near the charging point that can extinguish and contain the risk of fire spreading to the surrounding area. The fire extinguisher models in the Emme Antincendio srl catalogue are certified according to European standards and approved for fire protection, which have also passed voluntary tests for fires caused by lithium batteries.

Improper handling of lithium ion batteries increases the risk of fire. Due to the growing popularity of lithium ion batteries, their fire risks are also increasing. There are numerous examples of fires related to lithium ion batteries, such as the explosion of mobile phone batteries, e-bike batteries or electric scooters, for example.

The metal on the negative pole of the battery is graphite in which lithium is embedded. Lithium cobalt dioxide is on the positive pole. If you plug the battery into the socket, the positively charged lithium ions migrate from the positive pole to the negative pole. If the battery is used in a device, electrons are absorbed by the ions. The negatively charged ions then migrate back to the positive pole and are recharged there.

The two electrodes are protected from direct contact by a separator and remain largely electrically neutral during the charging and discharging process due to the migration of the lithium ions. The separator also plays an important role in protection circuits, e.g. when the temperature rises due to overcharging. Several mechanisms ensure that the separator is waterproof and that the current flow is interrupted. The electrolyte (electrically conductive substance), which facilitates the transfer of electrons to the electrodes and in which the lithium ions move, usually consists of (flammable) organic solvents with a lithium conducting salt (often lithium hexafluorophosphate LiPF6).

Improper handling increases the temperature in the cells, which can cause fires in lithium ion batteries. An increase in temperature leads to an increase in internal resistance, which causes a further increase in temperature, especially with high current flows (fast-charging, car and e-bike batteries).

This first phase of the reaction causes the pressure inside the cell to rise and the pressure relief valves to burst. In the second phase, outgassing of the cell components occurs due to the further increase in pressure and chemical reactions. In the third phase of the reaction, the cell eventually escapes (thermal runaway), possibly with fire and explosion.

When the pressure is relieved or in the event of fire or explosion, toxic substances hazardous to health are released, such as hydrofluoric acid and organic compounds, but also carcinogenic nickel and cobalt compounds. Hydrogen is also often produced, forming flammable mixtures with air (oxyhydrogen). Combustible gas is also produced by the DC voltage present at the poles if, for example, batteries are covered with extinguishing water.

Do not short-circuit or mechanically damage the battery (drill, deform, disassemble, etc.).

Do not heat or burn. Keep battery cells out of the reach of small children. Always store battery cells in a dry, cool place. With correct handling, battery cells are safe to use.

Incorrect handling or circumstances leading to improper operation can lead to leakage of battery contents and associated decomposition products and violent reactions that endanger health and the environment. In principle, contact with leaked battery components can pose a risk to health and the environment. It is therefore in contact with abnormal battery cells (leaking contents, deformations, discolouration, dents, etc.), appropriate body and respiratory protection is required. Escaping substances (gaseous or liquid) may e.g. react violently in combination with fire.

Action must be taken early on the fire start and gradually on the battery, preferably with extinguishing agents that allow the cells to cool down. The safety of the occupants of the premises and the people involved in the fire start is always paramount. In the presence of battery release gases and smoke, in an enclosed space, respiratory protective equipment must be worn if it is not possible to leave the room.

With batteries that have a plastic casing, not only the thermal risk, as with all batteries, must be taken into account, but also splinters from the casing containing the cells can be a high risk.

When storing large and possibly high-powered batteries or many small batteries in many packaging units, there are no fire prevention guidelines to date, which is why fire protection concepts must be developed in individual cases. Especially when fighting fires from batteries containing lithium, it is important to prevent chain reactions of individual cells and to contain the fire quickly and effectively from a safe distance directly on the burning battery or to allow controlled combustion.

Water-based extinguishing agents applied by spray jet have proven to be the preferred means for this purpose. Through the cooling effect of water, it effectively prevents a fire from spreading to battery cells that have not yet reached the critical temperature for ignition. The 'thermal runaway' that occurs within a cell is also slowed down. As a side effect, water-based extinguishers are often also suitable for any surrounding fires that may occur. Emme Fire Extinguishers with these characteristics are safe and certified according to EN 3 and EN 1866. Thanks to voluntary testing, EN 3 extinguishers are able to fight fires on lithium batteries up to 750 Wh, and EN 1866 extinguishers up to 5.1 kWh. (data as of publication date March 2023)

Other extinguishing agents such as sand, metal powder or similar substances are only suitable as extinguishing agents to a limited extent, as they only cover the source of the fire. The covering effect therefore favours 'thermal runaway'. When the cover is removed, the sudden supply of oxygen to the still-warm fire can cause a strong deflagration. These 'extinguishing agents' are therefore more likely to protect the environment. CO2 and nitrogen only have a very short and low cooling effect and are therefore not really suitable.

Electrolyte may escape if the cell housing is damaged. Leave the danger zone immediately until the vapours have dissipated. Ensure maximum room ventilation. Avoid contact with skin and eyes and inhalation of vapours. Leaking batteries must be hermetically sealed in a plastic bag together with universal binding material. Traces of electrolyte can be bound with a universal binding agent and absorbed with dry household paper and then removed in an airtight package. Avoid direct skin contact by wearing protective gloves. In case of contact, it should be rinsed off with plenty of water. Personal protective equipment appropriate to the situation must be used (protective gloves, protective clothing, face protection, respiratory protection).

The defective cell, electrolyte and binding agent must be disposed of properly.

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