Unmasking the dangers of unregulated lithium-ion batteries
Lithium-ion batteries have become an integral part of our lives, powering our smartphones, laptops, electric vehicles, and even renewable energy systems. There are multiple reasons why they’re so found in so many of our products, from their higher energy density and low self-discharge rates to the impressive recharging capabilities. In fact, the lithium-ion battery market is projected to grow a further 18.9% between now and 2030, reaching upwards of 57 billion USD. However, with the increasing use of lithium-ion batteries, ensuring safety has become a key concern amidst numerous reports of issues occurring, from globally renowned product recalls following battery problems to local UK news stories of people coming into ownership of counterfeit products containing unregulated lithium-ion batteries.
One Step Ahead
The automotive industry has been front and centre for lithium-ion batteries, seeing a monumental rise in their development for electric vehicles. Due to the nature of this sudden shift towards EVs, automotive safety standards have been much more pressing and effective. There have been many updates to EU and global regulations for EV batteries that cover the entire manufacturing process from sourcing to battery usage.
While we have seen numerous reports of EVs catching fire over the years, to a point where their safety was of serious concern, the sector has successfully bounced back and continued to progress in safety solutions for EV batteries. This progress was down to multiple factors, including improved governmental regulations and pressures of public perception.
The Warning Signs
Over recent weeks, yet alone years, we have seen warning signs that lithium-ion battery regulations and standards are behind where they need to be. When we look outside of the motor industry, the picture is less positive. Due to the nature of modern devices, lithium-ion batteries are being used in all forms of manufacturing, including those of poor standards and rushed production. Because of this, we’re seeing more stories of unregulated lithium-ion batteries malfunctioning leading to fires and harm to people.
Perhaps the most renowned in recent years is the global recall of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7. In September 2016, Samsung announced the recall of their new smartphone following countless reports of the phones undergoing combustion right inside people’s own pockets. Samsung later came out and announced that the issue was down to design flaws of the lithium-ion batteries, such as being too thin, applying too much stress to the battery, and electrodes coming into contact with each other, resulting in overheating.
There have been recent news stories that highlight just how dangerous poorly manufactured products containing unregulated lithium-ion batteries can be. A BBC news article from September details a tragic accident that occurred in Shadwell, east London, where the owner of an e-bike later died in hospital following the bike’s lithium-ion battery setting on fire during charging. In this incident, the e-bike battery was found to be heavily modified, and it calls for the need of tighter regulations on e-bike lithium-ion batteries.
A separate incident involving a counterfeit iPhone charger occurred in Glasgow, where a family’s house burned down following a fire that broke out from the charger’s lithium-ion battery. Thankfully nobody was physically harmed in the fire, but there is significant emotional and financial damage following the use of what was assumed to be a harmless product. The reality is we’re seeing more and more of these products that haven’t been properly tested or manufactured under correct safety regulations filtering through and ending up in people’s homes.
Better Days Ahead
Fortunately the problems associated with unregulated products have been recognised and solutions are in motion to improve standards and tighten regulations. Only last month there was a major announcement consisting of new EU battery regulations that can be broken down into 3 main aims:
1. Reduce the environmental and social impacts throughout all stages
2. Promote a circular economy.
3. Strengthen the functioning of the internal market.
These new EU regulations apply to manufacturers of all industries and extend to all batteries sold in the EU, not just automotive. To tackle sustainability and safety implications, the regulation mandates a carbon footprint declaration for electric vehicle (EV) batteries, light means of transport (LMT) batteries, and large industrial batteries, highlighting recycled materials. It also further restricts the use of hazardous substances like mercury, cadmium, and lead.
In terms of supply chain management economic operators must establish due diligence policies aligned with international standards for sourcing and processing battery materials. These policies focus on cobalt, natural graphite, lithium, nickel, and other materials. Labelling is also being pushed, where batteries will need clear labels, QR codes, and digital passports to convey capacity, performance, durability, and chemical composition. The “CE” mark becomes mandatory for batteries conforming to EU standards.
Another core principle of lithium-ion batteries is having access to proper end-of-life management and recycling solutions. The regulation aims for high-quality battery recycling, setting ambitious collection rates and specifying minimum levels of recycled content for new batteries. It also prohibits landfilling waste batteries and requires end-users to discard batteries separately. The new regulations take effect in phases, starting in February 2024, with different rules applying at various stages.
Lithium-ion batteries are perfectly safe and highly effective when manufactured under correct regulations and used responsibly. The automotive industry, one that we’re extremely familiar with, have made impressive progress in applying global standards, legislations and regulations to ensure they’re being built and used in applications appropriately. The problems arise when unregulated lithium-ion batteries are imported and being allowed to reach people’s homes, where more must be done to stop them being developed in the first place.
At Elmelin, we specialise in insulation for battery technology and work closely with lithium-ion batteries to provide vital safety solutions. By controlling the temperatures within battery devices, our insulation protects the owners and devices themselves from overheating and becoming a fire hazard. Not only ourselves, but many other UK manufacturers are continuing to develop solutions for lithium-ion battery products that keeps them safe to use. If you’d like to find out more about our solutions, get in touch for a friendly chat or visit our website here.