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The danger of a Li-ion battery

Finding a safer means for power storage

Lithium ion (LI) batteries power everything from e-bikes and scooters to electric cars and buses. They have revolutionized personal transportation and could be key to decarbonizing the electric grid.

But the more they catch on, the more they are catching on fire. As if to underscore the point, when fire marshals arrested a Queens e-bike retailer recently for making uncertified “Frankenstein” batteries, one of them exploded.

Last year alone, there were 445 LI battery fires reported nationwide, with 214 injuries and 38 deaths. New York City is ground zero, with 268 battery fires causing 150 injuries and 18 deaths last year. There have already been dozens more such incidents this year, including an e-bike battery setting off a fire in a six-story Harlem building which killed one person and injured 17 others.

Meanwhile global demand for LI batteries is surging, expected to grow 570% by 2030, including an estimated $560 billion worth of new battery installations in the U.S. These batteries have unparalleled energy density and efficiency, which is why they’re also used in “behind-the-meter” (BTM) battery storage systems for commercial and industrial customers running on-site solar, and by utility-scale Battery Energy Storage Systems (BESS), where an array of many batteries store energy from a power plant or the grid for later use.

These systems smooth out the peaks and troughs of generation and demand, and are increasingly essential for grid stability and making renewables work. But there have also been high-profile BESS explosions and fires, and a recent study found fire safety problems in more than a quarter of BESS installations.

Unless that changes, it’s predictable that as LI batteries scale up, battery fires will too. That would cause public confidence in them to tank, which could bog down on-site solar and renewables ramp-up. So we need to solve the battery fire problem both to protect public health and safety and also to fight climate change.

This is both a dilemma and an opportunity: to transition away from fossil fuels, we need to scale up battery storage systems, but to scale them, we need to solve LI batteries’ inherent problem of thermal runaway that can and does cascade into uncontrollable fires. >>MORE

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