TMCnet Feature
February 24, 2021

Lithium-Ion Batteries: How to Handle Them Safely

Lithium-ion batteries are incredibly potent stores of power, and they’re also everyday parts of life for virtually every person in the developed world. Lithium-ion batteries are so common, in fact, that many people give almost no thought to safety when using them. You’re using a lithium-ion battery when you talk on the phone, when you use a rechargeable flashlight – even when you enjoy a tank of Vape Juice. How could rechargeable batteries possibly be dangerous when people use them for almost everything?

Just when you start to become a little too cavalier about lithium-ion battery safety, though, you read a report in the news about a phone or laptop catching fire while charging or see a story about a person who suffered a horrible injury when a battery exploded in his pocket. We don’t mention these stories to make you afraid of using lithium-ion batteries; we mention them to underscore the importance of keeping safety in mind whenever you use, charge or transport your batteries.

If you think of rechargeable batteries – or rechargeable devices with built-in batteries – as ordinary consumer products, you may have never given much thought to safety when using them. You may not even know what the best practices are with regards to lithium-ion battery safety – and if that’s the case, this article is here to help. Whether you’re a flashlight enthusiast, a vaper or just someone who happens to own a mobile phone – which is just about everyone – this advice will help you ensure that you’re always using your lithium-ion batteries in the safest way possible.

Never Charge Lithium-Ion Batteries Unattended

If you’ve paid attention to news reports about fire incidents with lithium-ion batteries, you may have noticed that almost all of those incidents happen during charging. When a battery overheats during charging, the incident may or may not be within the user’s control. You may just happen to be the unfortunate person who ends up with one of the extremely rare batteries that has a manufacturing fault. The chance of a battery having a severe fault that goes unnoticed during the manufacturing process is literally millions upon millions to one against, but it does happen. Therefore, you must always charge your batteries when you are at home, awake and able to respond if something unexpected happens. Quick action with a fire extinguisher can make the difference between a minor inconvenience and major property damage.

Don’t Buy Generic Charging Accessories

Ending up with the extremely rare battery that has a manufacturing fault is something that you can’t control. What you can control, however, is the quality of the wall adapters, cables and other charging accessories that you purchase. If the wall adapter for your iPhone stops working, it’s very tempting to look at Apple’s price tag (News - Alert) for an official replacement, compare that price to what you’d pay for a generic replacement on Amazon or eBay and decide that you’d rather go with the cheaper option. Official charging accessories don’t just cost more because they protect the manufacturers’ profit margins, though; they also cost more because they usually have higher manufacturing standards and stricter testing requirements. It’s always best to avoid generic or off-brand charging accessories.

Don’t Carry Bare Lithium-Ion Batteries in Your Pocket

One of the most important things to remember about lithium-ion batteries is that they definitely aren’t the same as disposable alkaline batteries. You need to carry them with great care, and that particularly includes avoiding any situation in which a lithium-ion battery could touch other metal objects. In a cylindrical lithium-ion battery such as the popular 18650 cell, the top part of the battery – which is isolated from the rest of the battery by an insulating ring – functions as the positive terminal. The rest of the battery’s metal enclosure is the negative terminal. If any conductive metal object touches the battery’s positive terminal while simultaneously touching any other part of the battery, a short circuit will result – and that’s when very bad things can happen.

One of the worst mistakes you can make with a lithium-ion battery is carrying the battery in your pocket. Many of the other objects that you’re likely to carry in your pocket – keys, spare change, even a pen – are metal or have metal components, and it’s very easy for those items to touch the battery and cause a short circuit. A short circuit can very quickly lead to a raging fire in your pants, and there’s an easy way to avoid that: Don’t ever carry a battery in your pocket. Transport batteries only in dedicated plastic carriers that protect them from damage and prevent them from touching other metal items.

Don’t Use Damaged Lithium-Ion Batteries

Inside a lithium-ion battery are thin layers – the cathode and the anode – wrapped into a cylinder and prevented from touching one another by layers of insulating material. The delicate “sandwich” of different layers inside the battery can be disrupted if the battery suffers physical damage. If the insulation between the cathode and anode breaks down, the battery’s internal structure changes permanently, and an internal short circuit can develop. If you have a battery that’s bulging or dented, you should immediately stop using the battery and recycle it. Any visible sign of damage is a possible indication that the battery has a serious internal structural fault.

Don’t Buy Lithium-Ion Batteries From Unknown Sellers

One of the problems that the world will face in the very near future is what to do with all of the old lithium-ion batteries that no longer hold enough of a charge to be useful for their original purpose. Already, companies around the world are investing hundreds of millions of dollars to build the lithium-ion battery recycling facilities of the future. Until those facilities arrive, though, there are already some unscrupulous online sellers who have found a solution of their own. These people buy old batteries – like used laptop batteries, for instance – and crack them open to retrieve the cells. If the cells still hold a charge, those people put fresh wrappers on the batteries and sell them as if they were new. Needless to say, an old laptop battery isn’t likely to hold much of a charge, and it may not even be safe to use for high-drain applications.

A battery’s outer wrapper is nothing but printed heat-shrink tubing, making it very easy for dishonest sellers to print their own battery wrappers and put them on used batteries. Low-quality counterfeit batteries for phones and computers are, likewise, very common. When you buy lithium-ion batteries, you should avoid unknown sellers and buy only from merchants who get their batteries directly from the original manufacturers or authorized distributors.

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