How to impose a smoking ban on lithium batteries

(Warning: if you suffer from a nervous disposition, don’t read this story.)

Lithium batteries have been in the news again recently, unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. This BBC report from February 2014 includes the video below that demonstrates vividly the risks posed when lithium batteries go wrong.

It’s not the first time the safety of lithium batteries has been called into question. Smoking batteries - on ‘no-smoking’ flights - plagued the first year of service of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner aircraft. This recent Aljazeera news story highlights the terrifying experience of some of the passengers affected by the incidents. By January 2013, every one of the 50 aircraft sold by Boeing had been grounded. They were only permitted back into service in April of that year. The scary thing is that the causes of the problems have never been fully established; the aircraft were allowed to fly again after modifications were made to battery systems to contain fires better, rather than to prevent them! And this story under the headline “A 2006 battery fire destroyed Boeing 787 supplier’s facility” will do little to calm those of a nervous disposition.

Nippon Airways 787 Dreamliners grounded in Tokyo, January 27, 2013 (Kentaro IEMOTO -

While lithium batteries have been the focus of most attention, all batteries pose some degree of risk by way of explosion, fire or at least giving off nasty fumes. The risk is most apparent if they are not used as they should be, and particularly if they are charged or re-charged in a way that is inappropriate for the battery chemistry. Naturally, this risk has led to various industry bodies coming together to create standards to which batteries and battery testing procedures must comply. This article, published in New Electronics in 2012, gives a concise overview of the situation as it applies today. What it boils down to is that IEC 61233 is now the internationally accepted “safety standard for rechargeable secondary cells and batteries that contain alkaline or other non acid electrolytes, which are used in portable applications.”

Going back to the BBC news clip, one point is highlighted clearly. While the issue of battery safety has to be taken seriously whomever you buy batteries from, the risk increases significantly if you are duped into buying counterfeit batteries, or are naïve enough to do so knowingly in order to save money. (I don’t know if Boeing has yet calculated the final cost of its Dreamliner problems but it’s going to hurt.)

According to the Battery University (a great source of battery information), the global battery market will be valued at $74 billion in 2015. Any market of this size will attract rogues and counterfeiters trying to make a fast buck. Unfortunately, there is little that the average consumer can do to distinguish the quality and performance of one battery from another. Good batteries and bad batteries look the same, feel the same, and smell the same. It’s little wonder that some companies, like Sony, make a point of warning consumers about the dangers of using counterfeit batteries. Sony’s own brand reputation is at stake if products go wrong, and consumers won’t always be smart enough to pinpoint where the blame really lies.

Not surprisingly, our recommendation is to buy from reputable suppliers: trusted battery brands sourced directly from manufacturers of from trusted, authorized distributors. Using either route, products will come with full batch traceability so, in the very unlikely event of technical problems, these can be quickly addressed and corrected.

Avnet Abacus stocks batteries from BMZ GmbH, EnerSys, GP Batteries, Panasonic, Tadiran and Varta. Most have been selected for industrial applications and there’s a vast choice, including lithium ion, lithium polymer and many other technologies.

Impartial selection advice is readily available from Avnet Abacus’ Pan-European of technical experts. You’ll also be pleased to hear that every Avnet Abacus facility (and battery) is strictly non-smoking.

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