Mar 31, 2023 - Technology

Lithium battery fires spark regulation push

Illustration of a series of batteries on fire creating an upward bar chart.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The fire caused by a battery can be much more difficult to extinguish than a normal fire.Local, state and federal lawmakers have introduced a flurry of attempts to regulate lithium-ion batteries, following a spate of fires.

Why it matters: Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are the workhorse power source today for digital devices, and they're increasingly providing a backbone for the climate-inspired electrification of everything.

The big picture: In the past, batteries used in laptops or smartphones raised the most concern for fire risk. As their reliability has increased, fires started by the larger batteries used in vehicles and mobility devices such as scooters and e-bikes have captured public attention.

Driving the news: New York City Mayor Eric Adams signed a package of bills last week meant to further regulate lithium-ion batteries, promote safe usage and advocate for further federal actions. The batteries are believed to have caused 33 fires in 2023 in NYC so far, resulting in the deaths of three people.

  • New York state Rep. Jeffrey Dinowitz introduced a bill in the state house last month to ban the sale and manufacturing of batteries that do not meet minimum safety standards.
  • Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) introduced the Setting Consumer Standards for Lithium-Ion Batteries Act in Congress earlier this month. It tasks the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) with establishing "a final consumer product safety standard for rechargeable lithium-ion batteries used in personal mobility devices.”
  • “Lithium ion batteries have become an increasingly common cause of fires, and nowhere more so than in New York City,” Torres told Axios. “The growth has been exponential and lithium ion battery fires are the easiest to start and the hardest to extinguish.”

New York is far from alone in this problem. Reports of fires believed caused by batteries, from scooters to electric vehicles, have increased nationally and globally.

Lithium ion batteries pose a fire risk largely because they're increasingly built to carry more power in smaller forms.

  • Usually, they contain a positively charged cathode and a negatively charged anode, separated by a porous piece of polyethylene which allows liquid electrolyte to flow between the two poles.
  • Should that piece of plastic fail to separate the poles, due to defect, damage or erosion, the battery can short circuit, igniting or even detonating the electrolyte.
  • The fire caused by a battery can be much more difficult to extinguish than a normal fire.

By the numbers: EV, e-bike and electric scooter adoption has soared in the U.S. The Light Electric Vehicle Association estimates that the e-bike market is outpacing EV sales.

  • Subsequently, fires and loss of life from the technology have also risen.
  • A December release from the CPSC says that “From Jan. 1, 2021 through Nov. 28, 2022, CPSC received reports of at least 208 micromobility fire or overheating incidents from 39 states, resulting in at least 19 fatalities.”

What they’re saying: Low quality products and lack of market regulations have emerged as a key factor in the fires.

  • “The problem arises when those batteries are poorly designed, poorly manufactured and poorly handled,” Torres said. “And, for me, the scandal is not that the federal government is failing to regulate the safety of lithium ion batteries. The scandal is that the federal government is not even trying.”
  • "After COVID started, scooter use went dramatically up, especially in places like New York City, for deliveries," Steve Kerber, vice president and executive director of Underwriters Laboratory's Fire Safety Research Institute told CNN this month. "People started to get overcharged for them and turned to manufacturers which happened to have lower quality control with the battery systems. The quality manufacturers are not having issues."
  • NYFD fire commissioner Laura Kavanagh sent a letter to the CPSC asking it to begin “seizing imported devices at the ports that fail minimum industry standards, levying penalties against manufacturers who fail to inform CPSC of hazards posed by their products, and seeking additional recalls of unsafe products.”

Between the lines: UL Solutions has established battery manufacturing standards for micro-mobility devices, but Rep. Torres points out that compliance is “purely voluntary.”

  • In December, CPSC sent a letter to over 2,000 manufacturers and importers, calling on them to “review their product lines and ensure they comply with established voluntary safety standards or face possible enforcement action.”
  • The CPSC declined to comment further.

The intrigue: As part of an effort to shore up gaps in supply chains and reduce foreign dependence, the U.S. has launched an all-out push to increase the domestic manufacturing of batteries.

  • “Experience tells us that a product from the United States has a greater likelihood of complying with safety standards than a product from China,” Torres said.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to remove a description of the chemistry of battery fires that applies to some but not all varieties of lithium batteries.

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