Fires involving lithium-ion batteries can be hotter, more toxic, more sudden, and more stubborn to extinguish.
“There’s sometimes a bit of gas you see coming out of them, which is flammable and toxic, and then there’s an explosion,” said Calgary’s fire chief, Steve Dongworth. “So not a lot of warning.”
Battery fires are showing up in alarming numbers across North America, including in Calgary, where in recent months they have threatened lives, and gutted homes and businesses.
“The fire service across the world is looking at the best way to tackle these,” Dongworth said.
Batteries housing volatile chemical components are found inside our phones, tablets, vehicles, e-bikes, e-scooters, and just about every piece of our powered portable lives. Inside labs at the University of Calgary, researchers are working on lithium-ion alternatives.
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“My colleagues are working in the area of zinc-ion batteries, redux-flow batteries, sodium-ion batteries,” said Venkataraman Thangadurai from inside one of the university’s battery labs.
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Thanadurai is leading a global charge for a solid-state battery. Inside each battery is a conductor, called an electrolyte, that allows a charge to move through the cell.
Inside lithium-ion batteries, that electrolyte is liquid and flammable, but inside solid-state batteries, that liquid is replaced with a more stable solid.
“It’s stable to hundreds of thousands of degrees Celsius,” said Thangadurai as he and his team assembled the battery cells.
In Thangadurai’s technology, ceramics are the conductor of choice.
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“We are replacing those flammable components in a cell with a ceramic material which are absolutely stable to high temperatures and will never catch fire like polymers.”
The batteries are also more dense, potentially doubling the range of a traditional electric vehicle charge.
While the concept has been proven in small cells inside labs, scalability is still a challenge.
“It works at a small scale, but can you make it to a giga-factory level?” Thangadurai said. “That needs lots of effort.”
Researchers around the world are hoping to bring the technology to the commercial market in the next five to 10 years.
In the meantime, fire officials underscore the importance of buying electronics from reputable sellers, carefully following instructions on charging, and opting to unplug their devices once charging is complete.
“People now buy chargers online, which often come from overseas, and they’re not ULC or CSA rated, and often not the appropriate voltage or amperage for the battery — and that’s where people can get into trouble,” Dongworth said.
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