In recent years, Australia has witnessed a surge in the adoption of lithium-ion battery technology, and Queensland is no exception. Small, lightweight and versatile, these batteries power everything from smartphones to e-scooters, e-bikes and even household renewable energy storage systems. Whilst these convenient batteries have transformed the way we live, work and play, their introduction has been accompanied by a concerning rise in lithium-ion battery fires in QLD homes.
Data collated from Australian state fire departments indicate that more than 450 fires across this country have been linked to lithium-ion batteries since 2021 (including 157 in Queensland). Several of these fires have garnered significant media attention – see below.
Numerous factors contribute to this alarming safety trend, but one of the primary culprits behind lithium-ion battery fires is improper charging practices. If incompatible chargers are used, or devices like e-scooters are left charging unattended for extended periods, it can lead to overheating and a subsequent lithium-ion battery fire.
Another common cause of lithium-ion battery fires stems from manufacturing defects in either the battery charger or the battery itself. Poor adherence to quality standards during manufacture can lead to internal faults, increasing the risk of overheating and fire. Furthermore, improper storage and transportation of batteries can cause short circuits, posing a threat of fire. To mitigate these risks, consumers should avoid purchasing cheap lithium-ion batteries and chargers second-hand or from unregulated online marketplaces, as low-quality, counterfeit, and non-original equipment manufacturer (OEM) batteries and chargers can exacerbate fire hazards.
E-scooters and e-bikes, due to their nature of use, are often subjected to rough handling and exposure to environmental elements. Consequently, damage to the battery can occur, leading to internal short-circuits and potential fires. Even seemingly minor physical damage to the battery’s protective casing can create a pathway for ‘thermal runaway’, triggering a catastrophic fire event. When lithium-ion batteries fail, they undergo thermal runaway, involving the violent bursting of one or multiple battery cells, releasing toxic, flammable, and explosive gases, and resulting in an intense, self-sustaining fire. Putting out a lithium-ion battery fire is challenging, as it escalates rapidly with intense heat and cannot be easily extinguished with water or regular fire extinguishers. Additionally, such fires often reignite several times after being extinguished.
What about my photoelectric smoke alarms – don’t they also contain a lithium-ion battery?
The lithium batteries in smoke alarms differ in design from lithium-ion batteries used in e-scooters. Photoelectric smoke alarms contain two 3V, single-use, lithium batteries sealed within the alarm itself. These batteries are non-replaceable and are designed to deplete slowly and steadily over a 10-year lifespan. At the end of this period, the entire smoke alarm is disposed of (including the sealed batteries), and a new smoke alarm is installed. The fire and thermal runaway risks associated with recharging lithium-ion batteries are mitigated with non rechargeable smoke alarm lithium batteries.
When purchasing a photoelectric smoke alarm, it is essential to choose one that complies with Australian Standard 3786:2014, as indicated by the official Australian Standard mark on the packaging and the product itself. Product testing required of this standard helps ensure that the smoke alarm poses no electrical danger during normal use. Additionally, the smoke alarm should carry the electrical Regulatory Compliance Mark (RCM), affirming compliance with Australian electrical safety regulations outlined in Australian Standard 3820:2020. Avoiding cheap imported knock-offs without the RCM mark is crucial for battery safety.
The surge in lithium-ion battery fires in Australia calls for a collective effort from manufacturers, regulators, and users to address this growing concern. While the benefits of lithium-ion batteries are undeniable, the risks associated with their usage demand immediate attention. By enhancing safety regulations, improving manufacturing standards, educating and promoting responsible usage and re-charging practices, we can embrace the lithium ion-battery revolution in QLD while ensuring a safer and more sustainable future for all. For more information on lithium-ion battery safety please refer to the QLD Fire and Emergency Services (QFES).