A fire which badly damaged a home in the north Adelaide suburb of Burton, reportedly caused by a home battery system in the garage, has again brought into focus safety issues surrounding lithium-ion battery technology.
Metropolitan Fire Service northern operations commander Stuart Dawes described lithium-ion battery storage systems are an “emerging hazard to fire services around the nation,” reported the ABC.
Investigators have not yet concluded what caused the battery to catch fire and whether a fault in the product was to blame. It is not known what brand and make of battery the homeowner had installed.
Commander Dawes said fire services across Australia are currently developing policy and procedures to cope with the rise in these types of incidents.
It is critical for home battery systems to be properly stored and maintained, with exposure to excessive heat or punctures potentially leading to thermal runaway events.
Pv magazine’s Insight Australia event in 2021 looked in depth at the safety issues surrounding lithium-ion technology. Speaker Professor Paul Christensen, one of the world’s leading experts on battery fires and safety, said global uptake of lithium-ion battery technology has “outstripped” our knowledge of the risks.
The problem with lithium-ion batteries, he said, is also the reason they are so useful: they store an enormous amount of energy in a small space. If that energy starts getting released in an uncontrolled fashion, as a result of say abuse including overheating or puncturing, it can lead to a thermal runaway event.
Thermal runaway involves chemical reactions occurring inside the battery which produce heat and gases. The heat caused by these reactions then accelerates further reactions, creating a “runaway” chain which can potentially lead to fires or explosions.
According to Professor Christensen’s research, there have been around 40 utility-scale lithium-ion battery fires around the world in the last three years. It is far more difficult to say how many residential battery fires there have been. This is because, similar to solar-caused fires, different state authorities record the data differently or not at all.
In October 2021, the ABC also reported on a fire which broke out in a home in Broome in northern Western Australia. This fire wasn’t caused by a residential battery system but a lithium-ion battery used for a cordless drill which was left charging overnight.
As with the fire over the weekend in South Australia, the damage to the home was extensive.
Ben Muller, Area Officer for West Kimberley at Department of Fire and Emergency Services, estimates 15 to 20 fires a year that are caused by lithium-ion batteries. He noted it is “certainly an increasing trend,” according to the ABC.
Muller suggested installing extra smoke detectors in rooms with lithium batteries.
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