Lithium batteries – fire and safety hazards

Due to the use of certain chemical compounds in combination with high energy densities and the use of control electronics (potential of technical defect) required for secondary batteries, lithium batteries are associated with specific potential hazards which need to be taken into special consideration with regard to safety. Spectacular incidents have raised public awareness of potential problems associated with lithium ion and lithium metal batteries. Among other things this has led to several large-scale recalls of notebooks and smart phones in recent years.


  • On 3 September 2010, UPS Airlines flight 6, a Boeing 747-400, crashed close to Dubai International Airport on its way to Cologne Bonn Airport, leaving two crew members dead. The crash had been caused by fire in the cargo area which contained lithium ion and lithium metal batteries.
  • After a Boeing 787 (Dreamliner) coming from Narita/Japan had landed in Boston/US on 7 January 2013, fire broke out, caused by the thermal runaway of a lithium ion battery.
  • On 12 July 2013, a non-rechargeable lithium metal battery in an ELT (emergency locator transmitter) of a Boeing 787 at London Heathrow Airport caught fire.
  • On 6 November 2013, the third electric vehicle of the type Tesla Model S burned down.

It is characteristic of a battery that it releases chemically stored energy in the form of electric energy in the
course of the discharging process. In case of a “thermal runaway”, the entire energy is not released as electrical energy in a controlled manner, but uncontrollably in the form of thermal energy. In case of such a failure, the thermal energy released by a lithium ion battery may be 7 to 11 times higher than the energy stored electrically. The produced heat accelerates the reaction, resulting in a critical overheating of the battery.

In addition, it is possible that cathode materials disintegrate at high temperatures. This reaction also produces heat (exothermic reaction) and releases bound oxygen; when fire breaks out, the thus released oxygen makes it difficult to control the fire. It is even impossible to extinguish such a fire using conventional fire extinguishing methods.

Read the full report in english at the german Battery University here:

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