Lithium-ion batteries are used to power many aspects of our daily lives from razors and toothbrushes to cars and airplanes. They are important for the amount of energy they provide in smaller packages as well as the storage potential for future use. As the use of lithium-ion batteries (LiBs) continues to expand, the risks associated with this energy source must be better understood. And the impact is wide ranging as the manufacturing, application potential, transportation, storage and handling needs cuts across multiple industries and stakeholder groups including firefighters, insurers and end users globally.
Understanding the scale and potential unintended consequences of the technology as it proliferates was one of many conclusions drawn from UL’s first-ever Battery Safety Summit Dec. 2-3 at the DuPont Circle Hotel-Washington D.C. In the interest of promoting safe and healthy innovation, UL brought together leaders from across business and government to share the safety science around LiBs and moderate a series of panel discussions to explore new uses, raise awareness of potential risks and inspire others to work together to plan for and reduce unintended consequences associated with new uses.
“The challenge for participants was really how to meet the tall order of consumer and societal needs and move forward the optimum mix of technologies associated with portable energy and energy storage in multiple applications,” said Lisa Salley, vice president and general manager of UL’s Energy & Power Technologies Division. “Working collaboratively across industry will help leverage experience and best practices associated with battery safety and push innovation forward.”
One such new use the growing application of LiBs is in helping power aircraft systems prior to take off and as backup power in the unlikely event of a power failure during flight. UL’s Battery Summit came a day after the release of a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report on the root causes of the battery incidents on Boeing 787 Dreamliner airplanes in January, 2013, that led the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to temporarily ground the entire fleet. NTSB representatives opened the summit with a presentation on the report.
The NTSB research, which included the significant participation of UL and its safety scientists and engineers, discovered some design and manufacturing flaws in the airplane’s batteries that led to each incident. The NTSB called on the FAA to strengthen its examination of these batteries to better detect the possibility of cell-to-cell propagation of fire, known as “thermal runaway.”
To most people, the inert appearance of batteries disguises the power potential contained within them. Their increasingly common use has proven a boon to many manufacturers in driving innovation across industries; they have been essential to the development of the consumer electronics and sustainable energy industries and their future potential is exponential. Understanding the both broad and nuanced applications of LiBs across industries as well as the different stakeholders impacted by increased use was heavily discussed during the summit.
Some of the key takeaways from the summit, drawn from the panel discussions, included:
- A continued dialogue through sharing best practices, aggregation of data to help build modeling scenarios to cut testing time and costs and collaboration on projects to help move the industry forward;
- Safety and a process of safety are paramount. A systems approach is needed in looking at the application of lithium-ion batteries within and across industries;
- Codes and standards must try to anticipate both risks and new use opportunities of lithium-ion batteries and provide guiderails to help mitigate risk while enabling innovation.
Tom Chapin, vice president of Corporate Research at UL, said he was pleased with the wealth of knowledge shared at the summit and heard from many participants how much they had learned.
“We understand a lot about battery chemistry and design, though there is more we can learn when we start thinking about the broader application and implications of battery use,” Chapin said. “UL was thrilled we were able to provide a forum for dialogue and to exchange ideas for future research and outcomes.”
Market research reports have indicated exponential growth in the lithium-ion battery market globally as new applications are expanded upon leading with energy storage systems for renewables, automotive and back-up systems used in the military, healthcare and telecom. However, concerns about the safety of the batteries would cause a slowdown. To that end, battery safety and battery safety research will be an important component of helping move the industry forward.