E-Cigarettes—When Lithium Batteries Catch Fire

January 31, 2020

A man is critically injured after his e-cigarette explodes in his face. Another person suffers debilitating burns on his hands. An individuals has his teeth knocked out, while others suffer with sever burns to their tongues. These are just a few examples of the dangers of e-cigarettes.

What is the Main Problem with the E-cigarette?

The main problem with e-cigarettes is obvious—most e-cigarettes are powered by a lithium-ion battery, and that’s where the fire danger comes from. Lithium-ion batteries are a common power supply for electronics. They are found in any number of different electronic devices: cell phones, cameras, nightlights, and even in our hybrid cars. Both manual and automatic e-cigarettes are usually powered by a lithium-ion battery. When a person takes a drag from their e-cigarette, a battery powers the heating element which turns the chemical solution in the canister into a vapor. In manual devices you have to press a switch to take a puff.

One major cause of failure is when the plastic case that surrounds the battery is cracked due to misuse. This can allow humid air to come in contact with the lithium inside the battery which causes a chemical reaction that leads to combustion. The metal oxide grid structure can dissolve when overheated, releasing oxygen and resulting in the burning of the enclosed lithium. Another typical failure cause for a lithium-ion battery occurs when the electrolytes are heated to their boiling point, causing the internal pressure in the battery to build to a level where the seal at the end of the battery ruptures, and the pressure is abruptly released through the sealed end of the battery case. The cylindrical design of some e-cigarettes also leads to failure issues due to its structural weakness at its end points, making it a bigger fire risk.

When the battery seal at the end of the battery ruptures, the pressure within the e-cigarette cylinder builds quickly and can instantly explode . As a result, the battery and/or container can be propelled across the room like a bullet or small rocket. In contrast to e-cigarettes, the cylindrical lithium-ion batteries used in laptop computers and portable tools are contained in rigid plastic cases that are generally strong enough to prevent the failing battery from “rocketing” away. Fires do occur as a result of battery failure, but most fires initially involve only the device that the battery pack is installed in.

Some sources that can cause an overheating situation include, but are not limited to, exposure to direct intense sunlight, overcharging the device, and/or a short circuit of the electronics. Most cases of incidents involving a battery malfunction of such devices have occurred while plugged into a USB port during recharging.

One big mistake people make when using an e-cigarette is using a non-approved charger to recharge the device. Though e-cigarettes typically have a USB port that appears to be compatible with any USB cable and charger, using a non-approved charger, such as a third-party charging cable, could subject the battery to a higher voltage that is deemed unsafe and can increase the risk of overheating or what is termed thermal runaway. According to the U.S Fire Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a thermal runaway can result in a heating of the battery to its melting point, and bringing the electrolytes inside to a boiling point. The result is a possibility of fire or explosion.

How to Handle a Malfunctioning Device

The danger of a device catching fire is real and must be handled with care. The first action a first responder should consider when dealing with an overheated device is to remove it from any heat or power source. Place the heated device away from people and on a non-combustible surface—preferably outside—and begin the cooling process. If the device has exploded or is on fire, you can use any number of agents to extinguish it, such as water, dry chemical, Co2, or Metal-X extinguishers. Lithium-ion batteries found inside e-cigarettes contain only a small amount of lithium metal that reacts with liquids, so water can be used and is the most effective due to its cooling properties. After extinguishment, dispose of the device/battery properly.

In Conclusion

It is a well-known fact that lithium-ion batteries can pose a fire hazard, especially if left in certain pressurized areas, such as the baggage compartment of a plane. This has caused the Federal Aviation Association to prohibit e-cigarettes and other spare lithium-ion batteries from being kept in checked baggage. This is not to say that every lithium-ion battery installed inside a device is destined to fail. During normal conditions and use, the possibility of a lithium-ion battery failing is very low and is still a rare occurrence, especially with the number of devices in use within the population. As with any electronic device, allows follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for use.

Source: Science Daily, Vapingdaily.com

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