How laboratory testing helps prevent accidents with lithium-ion batteries

July 10, 2024


Lithium-ion batteries power our everyday lives, from smartphones to electric vehicles. Even though lithium-ion batteries are inherently safe, when mishandled or off-spec, they may pose  risks, including thermal runaway, short circuits, and chemical leaks. These hazards underscore the critical importance of rigorous laboratory testing to prevent accidents and ensure safety. This blog will explore the multifaceted role of laboratory testing in mitigating these risks, with a particular focus on testing for performance, safety, and the integrity of lithium-ion battery shipping and storage containers.

Understanding Lithium-Ion Battery Risks

Lithium-ion batteries are renowned for their high energy density, which makes them ideal for many applications. However, this high energy density also poses risks. Thermal runaway, for instance, is a condition where an increase in temperature causes further increases, potentially leading to a fire or explosion. Short circuits can occur if the battery’s internal components are damaged, causing a rapid discharge of energy. Chemical leaks can release hazardous materials, posing health risks and potential environmental contamination. Understanding these risks is the first step in implementing effective laboratory testing protocols.

In our work with customers to develop cutting-edge solutions to store and ship lithium-ion batteries and other hazardous materials, Americase partners with our sister company, Fulcrum Testing, to perform rigorous, UN-certified testing and simulations that subject our products to not only everyday-use conditions but extreme conditions as well. The end result is peace of mind that your cargo – and your people – are protected from unforeseen circumstances or uncontrollable changes in conditions. 

Let’s Go to the Lab!

Laboratory testing is essential in identifying and mitigating the risks associated with lithium-ion batteries. It ensures that batteries meet specific performance standards, can withstand various stressors, and remain safe throughout their lifecycle. This testing is crucial not only for the batteries themselves but also for the containers used in shipping and storage.

Some of the types of tests conducted include:

  • Performance testing: Ensures batteries deliver the expected energy output and efficiency under different conditions.
  • Safety testing: Evaluates how batteries respond to overcharging, puncturing, crushing, and extreme temperatures.
  • Environmental testing: Assesses battery performance under varying environmental conditions such as humidity, altitude, and temperature fluctuations.

Identify, Diagnose, and Prevent

Fulcrum Testing, like other accredited testing labs, subjects lithium-ion batteries to several procedures designed to identify potential issues before they can cause harm. These include thermal, electrical, mechanical, and chemical tests.

Thermal testing is crucial for detecting hotspots and potential thermal runaway conditions. Techniques like thermal imaging and the use of heat sensors allow researchers to monitor temperature changes within the battery. By subjecting batteries to controlled heating, testers can observe how they behave under high-temperature conditions and ensure they do not overheat during normal operation.

Electrical testing involves assessing the battery’s voltage, current, and resistance. These tests help identify any electrical faults that could lead to short circuits. For example, overcharging tests ensure that the battery’s internal protection mechanisms can prevent overvoltage conditions that might otherwise cause thermal runaway.

Mechanical testing subjects batteries to physical stress, impact, and vibration to simulate real-world conditions. This includes drop tests, crush tests, and vibration tests. These procedures help determine the battery’s structural integrity and ensure it can withstand everyday handling and transport without damage.

Chemical analysis involves examining the battery’s internal components to detect leaks and chemical reactions that might compromise safety. Methods like gas chromatography and mass spectrometry can identify volatile organic compounds and other hazardous materials that might be released if the battery is damaged.

 Testing for Shipping and Storage Safety

Shipping and storing lithium-ion batteries present unique challenges due to their potential risks if damaged or mishandled. Properly testing the containers used for these purposes is essential to prevent accidents during transportation and storage.

As mentioned earlier, inherently lithium-ion batteries are safe. However, if damaged or mishandled they can pose risks during shipping and storage, including fires, explosions, and chemical leaks. These risks are exacerbated by the fact that batteries are often shipped in bulk, increasing the potential for a single failure to cause widespread damage. Therefore, it is crucial to use containers that are specifically designed and tested to safely handle thermal runaway events should they occur.

Testing Shipping Containers

Containers used for shipping lithium-ion batteries must undergo rigorous testing to ensure they can safely transport batteries under various conditions.

  • Structural integrity tests: These tests ensure that containers can withstand physical stress and impacts during transport. Containers are subjected to drop tests, crush tests, and other mechanical stresses to verify their durability.
  • Thermal management tests: Effective thermal management is critical to prevent overheating during transport. Containers are tested to evaluate their ability to manage and dissipate heat, ensuring that even if one battery experiences thermal runaway, the heat does not spread to others.
  • Leakage and containment tests: Containers must be able to contain any leaks and prevent external contamination. Tests are conducted to ensure that if a battery leaks, the container can hold the hazardous materials without compromising the safety of the surrounding environment.
  • Fire resistance tests: Given the risk of fire, containers are tested for their fire resistance. This includes subjecting containers to open flames and high temperatures to ensure they can contain a fire if it starts, preventing it from spreading to other batteries or external materials.

Storage Condition Tests

In addition to shipping, the storage of lithium-ion batteries also requires careful testing to ensure safety. Storage condition tests focus on maintaining optimal environmental controls and effective fire-containment systems within storage facilities.

  • Environmental control: Storage conditions such as temperature and humidity must be carefully controlled to prevent degradation and reduce the risk of thermal runaway. Testing ensures that storage facilities can maintain these conditions consistently.   
  • Fire-containmnet and/or suppression systems: The effectiveness of fire-containment and/or suppression systems in storage facilities is critical. These systems are tested to ensure they can quickly and effectively contain and/or extinguish any fires that might occur, minimizing damage and preventing the fire from spreading.

In environments such as data centers, which are increasingly shifting to lithium-ion battery-backup units, complying with safety regulations is very important. 

“Data centers need a 100 percent uninterrupted power supply, and since it’s impossible for standard electrical power grids as they exist to provide that, batteries play a critical role in keeping uptime as close to 100 percent as possible,” says Chris Egloff, Americase Vice President of Strategic Business Opportunities, Lithium and Hazmat Division. “Solutions such as our BBU case combine form and function with cutting-edge materials to meet modern data centers’ needs for modular, safe storage, and efficient storage that meets or exceeds all regulations and standards. ”

And that need will continue to grow. In 2020, lithium-ion batteries powered approximately 15 percent of data centers, according to global research firm Frost and Sullivan. By 2025, close to 40 percent of data centers are expected to be powered by lithium-ion. “Our products help reduce incidents such as thermal runaway and other hazards,” notes Egloff. As more and more data centers adopt lithium-ion technology, safety becomes more important and more complex

 Advances in Battery Testing Technology

As technology advances, so too do the methods for testing lithium-ion batteries. Emerging technologies offer new ways to predict and prevent potential failures.

Innovative Testing Techniques

Recent innovations include AI-driven predictive analytics and advanced diagnostic tools that can identify potential issues before they become serious problems. For example, machine learning algorithms can analyze vast amounts of data from battery tests to predict failures with greater accuracy.

Future Trends

Looking ahead, battery testing will likely continue to evolve, driven by advancements in technology and increasingly stringent regulatory standards. Future trends may include more sophisticated simulation models that can predict battery behavior under a wider range of conditions and more comprehensive real-time monitoring systems that provide continuous feedback on battery performance and safety.

 The Role of Regulatory Bodies and Standards

Regulatory bodies and standards play a crucial role in ensuring the safety of lithium-ion batteries. These organizations set the guidelines and requirements that manufacturers must follow to ensure their products are safe for use.

Regulatory Framework

International and national standards, such as those set by the United Nations (UN),  SAE International, and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), govern the safety of lithium-ion batteries. These standards cover everything from the design and manufacturing of batteries to their testing, shipping, and storage.

Compliance and Certification

Adhering to these standards is essential for manufacturers. Compliance ensures that batteries meet the necessary safety requirements and helps prevent accidents. The certification process involves rigorous testing and evaluation to verify that products meet all relevant standards.

The Critical Role of Manufacturers

Manufacturers play a key role in ensuring the safety of lithium-ion batteries. By integrating comprehensive testing protocols into their production processes and maintaining ongoing quality assurance, they can help prevent accidents and improve overall safety.

Manufacturers should incorporate testing at various stages of production to identify and address potential issues early. This includes testing raw materials, components, and finished products to ensure they meet all safety and performance standards. And it goes without saying that they should use trusted, certified partners to do so. This is not an endeavor that companies should ever try to DIY. Way too much is at stake. Says Americase CEO Robby Kinsala, “One of the most rewarding things we do is provide peace of mind to our customers, and with the rigorous, extensive testing we do on our own products, we can confidently provide that peace of mind to them – because we ourselves have it.” Says Kinsala, “We are proud of how thoughtfully designed our work is, and we know that our hard work keeps our customers safe.”

Peace of Mind through Sound Science

 Laboratory testing is a critical component in preventing accidents with lithium-ion batteries. Through rigorous performance, safety, and environmental testing, as well as thorough testing of shipping and storage containers, manufacturers can identify and mitigate risks before they lead to serious incidents. Advances in testing technology and adherence to regulatory standards further enhance the safety and reliability of these batteries. By implementing comprehensive testing protocols and maintaining ongoing quality assurance, manufacturers can ensure the safe and effective use of lithium-ion batteries.

When you need a partner who is as dedicated to safety and reliability as you are, Americase is here to help. 

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