VIDEO: A group of scientists decided to deliberately overheat lithium-ion batteries just to see what happens

Thermal abuse tests of cells showing thermal runaway. Image: Donal Finegan, University College London

A group of scientists decided to subject lithium-ion batteries to a series of abuses and see what makes them explode.

Understanding how Li-ion batteries fail and potentially cause a dangerous chain reaction of events is important for improving design to make them safer for use and transport.

Three airlines, including Qantas, this year announced they will no longer carry lithium-ion batteries as cargo after the US Federal Aviation Administration tests found overheating could cause major fires.

The study by University College London, ESRF (European Synchrotron Radiation Facility), Imperial College London and the National Physical Laboratory is published in the journal Nature Communications.

The research shows for the first time how internal structural damage to batteries evolves in real-time, and provides an indication of how this can spread to other nearby batteries.

The researchers used high energy synchrotron X-rays and thermal imaging to map changes to the internal structure when exposed to extreme heat.

The scientists explain in this video:

Thermal runaway — where the battery overheats and can ignite — was captured using exceptionally high speed imaging.

Dr Paul Shearing of University College London said: “Although we only studied two commercial batteries, our results show how useful our method is in tracking battery damage in 3D and in real-time. The destruction we saw is very unlikely to happen under normal conditions as we pushed the batteries a long way to make them fail by exposing them to conditions well outside the recommended safe operating window. This was crucial for us to better understand how battery failure initiates and spreads. Hopefully from using our method, the design of safety features of batteries can be evaluated and improved.”

The team now plan to study what happens with a larger sample size of batteries.

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