Lithium-ion batteries, while essential for modern portable power, have a critical vulnerability: they can ignite. This flaw has been brought to the forefront by recent incidents, such as a fire on a JetBlue flight caused by a battery in a backpack. As these batteries become more common in devices like e-bikes, electric vehicles, and laptops, the urgency to improve their safety has increased.
Researchers worldwide are making strides in battery technology, developing solid-state batteries with nonflammable components to replace the traditional flammable liquid electrolytes. A notable study published in Nature has proposed a mechanism to prevent the formation of lithium dendrites, which can cause short-circuits and fires when batteries overheat.
The University of Maryland’s study, led by Chunseng Wang, suggests that with each new discovery, we move closer to resolving the safety concerns surrounding electric vehicles. Meanwhile, Yuzhang Li of UCLA is working on a lithium metal battery with the potential to store far more energy than current models.
Despite the fear surrounding electric vehicle fires, experts like Li emphasize that the risks are comparable to those of traditional vehicles. However, electric car fires can be more challenging to extinguish and may reignite due to residual energy in the batteries.
The Fire Protection Research Foundation has found that while electric vehicle fires are similar in intensity to those in gasoline-powered cars, they require more resources to manage. This has implications for firefighters, first responders, and drivers, and is a factor in the learning curve associated with the adoption of electric vehicles.
Insurance perceptions of electric vehicle fires may also be affecting costs. Martti Simojoki of the International Union of Marine Insurance notes that transporting electric vehicles is seen as a high-risk business by insurers, potentially leading to higher insurance premiums for consumers. However, research by the union indicates that electric vehicles are not inherently riskier than conventional cars.
These developments reflect a concerted effort to address the safety issues of lithium-ion batteries, aiming to ensure that the benefits of electric vehicles and other battery-powered devices do not come at the cost of increased fire hazards.