Lithium Batteries in Hoverboards – As I’ve blogged about in the past, hoverboards are exploding literally and figuratively all over the country. They are relatively new toys that just popped up this past year. We have watched Justin Bieber in a music video zoom around on one and famous stars on you tube videos zip around on these boards. It is appealing to so many of us. There’s just one problem. Hoverboards and many other common electronic devices are operated by lithium batteries, a powerful, lightweight and rechargeable source of energy that is usually safe when manufactured and handled correctly. When manufacturers or intermediaries who ship the hoverboards or even consumers ignore certain precautions, however, it can result in an unstable and dangerous product that can spontaneously generate intense heat or fire, and can even explode.
Recently, investigators from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) Office of Hazmat Safety intercepted a shipment of 32 cargo containers filled with hoverboards that weren’t properly prepped for shipping in accordance with DOT hazmat transportation regulations. What’s worse, more than 80 percent of retailors offering to ship the hoverboards could not prove that the lithium batteries within had undergone required safety testing. Given the very real and serious potential for danger, PHMSA issued a Safety Alert identifying major safety concerns with the transport of hoverboards containing lithium batteries. Transporting hoverboards as cargo without complying with Hazardous Materials Regulations can carry large civil penalties and potential criminal liability.
In 2014, PHMSA issued a Final Rule that provided new safety standards for the shipment of lithium batteries by enhancing packaging and HazCom requirements for lithium batteries transported by air. The rule also unified U.S. regulations with international standards. Additionally, many airlines have banned hoverboards from carry-on and checked baggage due to safety concerns. Safety is our top priority.
Recently, CPSC issued vague guidance on hoverboards as they currently investigate exploding hoverboards, saying that consumers who buy them shouldn’t fully charge them before wrapping them as a present.
According to an article on wired.com, the big problem has to do with the quality of the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries inside the hoverboard. They’re almost always tucked in one of the foot rests, and they work the same way as the lithium-ion batteries in our smartphones, tablets, and laptops. They’re just a lot more prone to defects.
Jay Whitacre, Professor of Materials Science & Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, says that the problem is the quality of the batteries being used. They’re cheap, and it makes sense: This is a product many people are after, the reputable models are pretty expensive, and the more-affordable brands are using cheaper components to tempt shoppers that don’t want to spend a grand or more on a hands-free Segway. Consequently, many of the cheaper brands are flooding the market with badly made scooters made from cheap components. “There are a lot of factories in China that now make Li-ion batteries, and the reality is that the quality and consistency of these batteries is typically not as good as what is found in top tier producers such as LG or Samsung,” Whitacre says. “These are known as ‘low cost li-ion batteries’ by most in the industry—they are not knockoffs or copies, but are instead just mass-manufactured cells.”
With these cheap batteries, a lot of things can cause fires. For one, the nature of a hoverboard—it can bang into stuff, smash into things at high speeds, which makes the batteries susceptible to damage. It’s not just the nature of a cheap battery, it’s the nature of any lithium-ion battery. The damage can cause a short circuit, which can cause an explosion.
“Small defects in the manufacturing or materials stream lead to the plus/minus sides of the batteries being shorted with each other after a small amount of use. When this happens, especially when the batteries are charged, a lot of heat is generated inside the cells and this leads to electrolyte boiling, the rupture of the cell casing, and then a significant fire.” That fire can build upon itself and be hard to contain. Whitacre says all lithium-ion batteries contain highly flammable electrolytes that burn “fast and hard” when air hits them. When things get hot, common cathode materials turn into additional oxygen sources, too. “This stokes the fire even more,” Whitacre says.
Lithium-ion batteries are great because they are small but hold a lot of energy, so electronics manufacturers are obviously going to use them. But packing all that power can come with its risks in some products—that risk specifically being fire.
The batteries in hoverboards may not be the only problem, though. It’s less common, but a defective charger could also cause problems with any electronic device.
“If there is not proper protection to the cells, and if the charger is defective, the cells can be severely overcharged,” Whitacre says. “In cases of severe overcharge, even perfectly made cells will eventually fail, though a fire is not always the outcome in this case. The cell may just pop its gas vent and dry out.”
So what can a consumer do if they really have their heart set on a hoverboard? Traditional wisdom recommends people should just stick with top tier brands, but this is where things get confusing, because this product category is totally new, and no exemplars of quality have emerged. A higher price should be an indicator of better quality, but companies such as IO Hawk and Hovertrax, which make more-expensive devices, aren’t exactly known as tech powerhouses. Regardless of how much you’re paying, it’s almost impossible to tell what kind of fire hazard lurks (or doesn’t lurk) inside any scooter. The scariest part is that you may not find out until it’s far too late.