Author(s): Kathleen Almand. Published on November 1, 2011.

Batteries, Knowledge, & Standards
Building our understanding of the hazards posed by lithium ion battery storage

NFPA Journal®,  November/December 2011 

Lithium ion battery storage in aircraft has been making the news lately as the Department of Transportation considers rule-making in response to two recent crashes attributed to fire in the storage compartment that contained bulk battery shipments. In August, the Foundation’s Property Insurance Research Group sponsored a workshop designed to explore the hazard associated with these batteries in storage and to develop an action plan for protection strategies. Although the focus of the insurers is data to inform NFPA standards on warehouse storage protection, lithium ion batteries are appearing in many aspects of our society. Workshop participants represented the aircraft, automotive, insurance, and military sectors, as well as the battery industry itself, all focused on solutions to manage lithium ion battery hazards.



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The Foundation recently published a cradle-to-grave hazard assessment of this topic that assembled current information on the causes and consequences of cell thermal runaway and the facility hazards presented in the manufacture, transport, pack assembly, testing, use, disposal, and recycling of these batteries. This formed the basis of a discussion around protection strategies for different battery formats in different configurations and gaps in our knowledge. For example, how do we identify damaged cells before thermal runaway occurs? How do bulk packaged batteries, large format batteries, or small consumer appliances with batteries fit into the generally used hazardous commodity classification system that is the basis for NFPA storage protection requirements? We hope the outcome will be a collaboration designed to answer these questions.

NFPA standards intersect with battery safety in a number of areas beyond warehouse storage protection, ranging from the provisions of the National Electrical Code® and the Fire Code to various facility protection standards, such as those for motor vehicle dispensing and telecommunications facilities. In addition, several NFPA standards related to first responder safety may be affected by the outcome of our understanding of lithium ion batteries, in particular as it relates to hazmat response and pre-incident planning.

This study demonstrates the proactive approach NFPA and the Foundation take in dealing with new technology that may present fire or electrical safety hazards. We develop a clear understanding of the hazard, place that understanding in the context of facility and use, and devise a practical, solutions-oriented approach toward protection.

The same approach is currently being used for other alternative energy technologies. The Foundation recently conducted studies on the impact of smart-grid and electric vehicle (EV) technologies on NFPA’s electrical safety codes and standards. Issues were identified that are now being addressed by the committees that develop these documents. Last year we conducted two workshops exploring the fire service’s concerns with EVs and photovoltaics. The impact of new energy-saving technologies introduced into fire protection systems themselves — such as replacing conventional incandescent lighting with LED light sources in emergency strobe lighting — is also being explored. These projects and others will be reviewed at the joint NFPA/Foundation symposium planned for December in Atlanta, Georgia.

The workshop in August and the standards-development activities that will follow are the other trademarks of NFPA’s consensus-based process. For many in the room in August, it was refreshing to be part of a solutions-oriented approach toward ensuring that safety concerns do not impede the further development and implementation of new technology.

Kathleen H. Almand, P.E., FSFPE, is the executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.