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Irina Slav

Irina Slav

Irina is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.

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Fire Risk Slows Down Battery Boom

Lithium-ion batteries have come to dominate the battery market, and this domination looks like it will be a lasting one despite the numerous reports of breakthroughs in battery technology that attempt to find viable alternatives to lithium-ion technology. Yet, now the search for an alternative could benefit from new regulations seeking to limit the risk of fire inherent in lithium-ion batteries, which is their biggest problem.

Lithium-ion batteries are put in everything from smartphones to electric cars. And they catch fire. There has been a string of worrying news reports recently. Some dealt with the high prevalence of phone battery fires: 65 percent of all fires at waste facilities in California last year were from lithium-ion batteries. Others focused on the latest Tesla crash in Switzerland, which, local firefighters said, might have resulted in a battery fire that set the whole vehicle on fire.

This risk of fire is not widely publicized by the proponents of lithium-ion battery installations for obvious reasons. These battery installations are hailed as the holy grail of renewable energy—battery arrays large enough to store energy from solar and wind farms to be used when the wind dies down and the sun sets. While it’s easy to understand the enthusiasm, some curbing is in order, and various city authorities across the United States are doing just that.

San Francisco, for one, already has regulations in place for battery packs of over 20 kWh in capacity. These need to comply with fire regulations for stationary battery systems, which include installation in a separate room with automatic sprinklers, a smoke detection system, and ventilation, Bloomberg notes in a recent story.

New York is in the process of drafting special battery installation regulations, and other cities are watching it closely. By the end of the year, there should be a clear guide for the installation of indoor battery systems in buildings, one of the leaders of the regulation effort told Bloomberg. Related: Iran Prepares For Oil Production Decline

This would only be the start, however, as the city authorities seek to make battery systems as safe as possible in anticipation of a boom in their deployment: the city has a target of 100 MWh in battery storage capacity by 2020. In the meantime, battery deployment is understandably slowing down.

The reason battery systems need such special attention from regulators and fire departments is that when they start burning, they might stop and then start burning again later. As the chief of the Phoenix Fire Department explained it to ABC in a recent report on the topic, “It's literally like candles on a birthday cake at parties, those trick ones. You blow it out and it reignites and that's new for us.”

So, while fire departments learn to handle this tricky kind of fire, and as regulators add costs to battery installations to ensure their safety, battery researchers looking for alternatives to the lithium-ion dominator have additional motivation: make a battery that doesn’t burn so viciously.

Already there are steps being made in that direction. There was the glass battery developed by Portuguese researcher Maria Helena Braga in partnership with the creator of the original lithium-ion battery, Dr. John Goodenough. Since this battery replaces the liquid electrolyte with a solid one, it is virtually incombustible. It also seems far from commercialization at the moment.

Another battery project replaces the liquid electrolyte where the risk of fire resides with one made from a flame-retardant plastic. Besides minimizing the risk of fire when the battery is damaged, the plastic also eliminates the formation of dendrites, lithium “whiskers” that can form inside a lithium-ion battery and lead to a short circuit and the battery’s death.

So, as city regulators mull over the best way to secure battery storage installations, we might hear more about fireproof battery breakthroughs. Especially if they are cheaper than lithium-ion batteries, which the creators of the existing alternative batteries claim is the case.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Dan on May 22 2018 said:
    Just how large an explosion is created when a battery storage unit blows up within a large contained area with other battery storage units? Is the potential catastrophic?
  • David Jones on May 23 2018 said:
    The case in Switzerland was based on social network postings that were retracted. Most likely some employee theorizing without substantial evidence.

    I'm not sure what the exact fire hazard precautions are of other batter makers but the Tesla grid battery was tested for fire hazard, the videos are available on an article by Electrek from 2016 if I remember correctly, a thermal runaway situation within one of the cells was induced to see what happens. The conclusion was that fire which starts within a cell will not spread to other cells, the grid battery unit actually remains functional with all it's other cells not substantially affected. Damaged batteries do have a chance of catching fire again so this could be a case of the disposal facilities needing to adjust their storage procedures to deal with the changes.

    Alternatives to Lithium in the grid scale market exist. Vanadium Redox-Flow batteries for instance do not catch fire and have far lower toxicity. This technology is in production so why it is not being mentioned is a little strange, assuming we are talking about batteries in general. The Chinese are in fact building a 200MW/800MWh vanadium redox-flow battery installation and the Germans are looking to commercialise it for the masses. There are many alternative chemistries to lithium so Li-Ion is definitely not the end of the story, it is just the beginning.
  • snoopyloopy on May 23 2018 said:
    This was previously covered elsewhere. Fires in stationary storage would almost certainly be contained.

    https://electrek.co/2016/12/19/tesla-fire-powerpack-test-safety/

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