E-bikes: when the battery becomes a danger

Is it a fire scenario like the one in Kronach’s Industriestrabe that fire departments will have to prepare for more often in the future? On Tuesday, 9. June, the Kronach fire department is alerted. A bike burns on a company premises in the industrial park. The fire was quickly extinguished by the emergency services. What remains are the charred remains of an e-bike that was destroyed after use "for reasons as yet unexplained Caught fire. Before that, the witnesses did exactly the right thing: They pushed the burning wheel out of the building and alerted the emergency services.

It’s a scenario that is likely to happen more often in the coming years. Not because the main culprit, the lithium-ion battery, is fundamentally dangerous, but merely because the proliferation of batteries is growing year by year. The Federal Statistics Office shows that imports of rechargeable batteries – mostly from the Far East – quadrupled between 2012 and 2018. In 2018, the German economy imported about 190 million lithium-ion batteries and exported 87 million. 40 percent of the import volume came from China.

In Germany, the batteries have to pass a strict safety inspection. Dirk Moser-Delarami, press spokesman at TuV Sud, knows that. In recent years, he has received more and more inquiries from journalists about various battery fires – more and more frequently: the burning e-bike.

E-bike batteries harbor dangers

On Holy Saturday, the exploding battery of an e-bike set a living room in Erlangen on fire. Damage: a five-figure sum. In 2017, a battery fire in Hanover was reported nationwide. In a bicycle store, the battery caused the fire in this case as well. Damage: around 500000 euros. Hamburg, Hagen, Denkendorf – in the past few days alone, there have been numerous reports of burning e-bike batteries all over the country that have caused more or less damage.

Are the batteries really that dangerous? Press spokesman Moser-Delarami explained that the batteries are fundamentally safe: "When handled properly, lithium-ion batteries pose no unusual or increased fire risk." TuV Sud even tests the batteries from the Far East under tougher conditions than the law requires for approval. But the volume of batteries in Germany is growing and growing in the wake of e-mobilization. Calculated in terms of the number of rechargeable batteries used – not only in e-bikes or e-cars, but also in small appliances – the number of incidents is vanishingly small, the press spokesman explains. But the logical consequence of a growing market is that more of the so-called rechargeable batteries are in circulation. This also increases the risk that they will be misused.

That’s actually what it’s all about, explains the TuV press spokesman, the proper treatment of a lithium-ion battery. The second possibility, a technical production error, is most rare, he said. He last remembers the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, which the South Korean manufacturer recalled in 2016. In this case, it was not the user who was to blame, but the production department.

The normal case of a battery catching fire is a "mechanical or thermal effect", Press spokesman Moser-Delarami explains. If the accumulator falls on the ground, falls a cyclist with the E-Bike, the danger is in principle higher that the accumulator was damaged. The chemicals in the cells mix. A short circuit during charging eventually causes the fire. But the temperature is also crucial. If a battery is cooled too much or heated too high, the high-energy interior of the battery may change. A third point is the deep discharge, when the battery is completely used up. Also thereby it can come to a chemical change at the electrodes.

The Institute for Loss Prevention and Damage Research (ifs) refers to a "thermal runaway", the thermal runaway of the battery. In this case, the stored energy is discharged abruptly as thermal energy – and not as electrical energy as desired. The battery catches fire and can even explode.

Avoid battery fire – but how?

"Many consumers are often unaware that their rechargeable batteries are compact bundles of energy that should be handled with appropriate care", explains the TuV press spokesman. Proper handling is important. We have written down some points to be considered:

1. If possible, do not charge batteries unattended – experts even advise not to charge devices at night, as you cannot keep an eye on the process.

2. Do not leave batteries and electrical appliances permanently connected to the mains supply. Unplugging the device when it is charged conserves the battery and prolongs its service life.

3. It is not advisable to charge battery-powered devices on surfaces that generate additional heat, such as a pillow or a blanket.

4. Even if other plugs fit – it is best to use only original accessories to charge the battery.

5. Do not drop batteries and electrical appliances – shocks can cause cell damage in the battery.

6. Greater heat and cold affect rechargeable batteries, they can lead to damage.

7. If a battery is suspected of being damaged, a specialist dealer should be consulted.

8. Disposal only at the recycling center, under no circumstances in the household waste – in addition to the disposal ban, there is also a risk of fire.

And if the wheel burns nevertheless once? Then, the TuV press spokesman recommends not to start an unauthorized attempt to extinguish the fire. "The heat development can be enormous", he explains.

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