Lithium Battery Fires vs. Lithium Metal Fires: Choosing the Right Fire Extinguisher

  • April 21, 2023
  • Blog

As the use of lithium batteries and lithium metals continues to grow in various applications, so does the need to understand the risks and proper responses to fires involving these materials. Both lithium battery fires and lithium metal fires present unique challenges, and each requires a different approach when selecting the appropriate fire extinguisher. In this blog post, we will discuss the differences between lithium battery fires and lithium metal fires, the proper fire extinguishers to use for each, and the best practices for handling these situations safely.

Lithium Battery Fires: Characteristics and Causes

Lithium-ion batteries are commonly found in devices such as smartphones, laptops, and electric vehicles due to their high energy density, lightweight nature, and long-lasting charge. However, when damaged, short-circuited, or exposed to extreme temperatures, lithium-ion batteries can pose a significant fire risk.

When a lithium battery fire occurs, it typically involves thermal runaway – a process in which the battery’s temperature rapidly increases, leading to the release of flammable gases and the ignition of nearby combustible materials. These fires can produce intense heat, toxic fumes, and even explosions.

Proper Fire Extinguisher for Lithium Battery Fires

While it may seem counterintuitive, lithium battery fires are not the same as lithium metal fires and therefore require a different type of fire extinguisher. Lithium-ion batteries do not contain metallic lithium; instead, they have a lithium compound in their electrolyte. As a result, the specialized Class D extinguishers used for lithium metal fires (such as those containing Lith-X or Copper Extinguishing Agents) are not the ideal choice for lithium battery fires.

For lithium battery fires, a Class ABC fire extinguisher containing a dry chemical agent (usually monoammonium phosphate) is generally recommended. This type of extinguisher can effectively suppress the combustion process and help smother the fire. However, it is important to note that using an ABC extinguisher on a lithium battery fire may not entirely prevent reignition, as the battery may continue to generate heat even after the fire is extinguished. In cases where lithium battery fires cannot be effectively suppressed using a Class ABC extinguisher, firefighters may resort to using large amounts of water to cool down the battery and prevent reignition.

Lithium Metal Fires: Characteristics and Challenges

Lithium metal fires, on the other hand, involve the combustion of pure metallic lithium, which is highly reactive and easily ignites when exposed to air or moisture. Lithium metal fires generate intense heat and are notoriously difficult to extinguish due to the metal’s reactivity with water and other common extinguishing agents.

Proper Fire Extinguisher for Lithium Metal Fires

As previously mentioned, Class D fire extinguishers are specifically designed for fires involving combustible metals, including lithium metal. However, standard Class D extinguishers containing sodium chloride, copper powder, or graphite-based formulations are not effective against lithium fires due to unfavorable chemical reactions, inadequate cooling, and inability to smother the fire.

Instead, specialized Class D extinguishers containing Lith-X, a graphite-based dry powder, or Copper Extinguishing Agents (CEAs) should be used for lithium metal fires. These extinguishing agents are highly effective against lithium fires, as they work by smothering the fire and absorbing the heat generated by the combustion process.

Best Practices for Handling Lithium Battery and Lithium Metal Fires

  1. Choose the appropriate fire extinguisher: Selecting the right fire extinguisher is critical for effectively combating fires involving lithium batteries or lithium metals. Use a Class ABC extinguisher for lithium battery fires and a specialized Class D extinguisher containing Lith-X or CEA for lithium metal fires. Using the wrong type of extinguisher can exacerbate the situation and put lives at risk.
  2. Avoid water for lithium metal fires: Water should never be used to extinguish lithium metal fires, as it can cause violent reactions that intensify the fire. However, for lithium battery fires, large amounts of water can be used as a last resort to cool down the battery and prevent reignition when other extinguishing methods prove ineffective.
  3. Implement safety measures: When working with lithium batteries or lithium metals, ensure that proper safety measures are in place. This includes adequate ventilation, temperature control systems, and regular inspections for signs of wear, damage, or overheating. In environments where lithium metal is handled, make sure that specialized Class D fire extinguishers are readily accessible.
  4. Wear proper protective gear: The intense heat generated by lithium fires necessitates the use of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), such as fire-resistant clothing, gloves, and face shields. A self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) may also be required to protect against toxic fumes released during the combustion process.
  5. Train personnel: Ensure that staff members who work with lithium batteries or lithium metals are adequately trained in handling and disposing of these materials, as well as in the use of appropriate fire extinguishers. Regular training sessions and drills can help reinforce best practices and improve emergency response times.
  6. Dispose of damaged batteries properly: Damaged or swollen lithium batteries pose a significant fire risk and should be disposed of according to local regulations and manufacturer guidelines. Avoid puncturing, crushing, or incinerating lithium batteries, as these actions can lead to thermal runaway and fires.
  7. Store lithium batteries and metals safely: When storing lithium batteries or lithium metals, follow the manufacturer’s guidelines and local regulations. Keep them in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight, and avoid storing them near flammable materials or heat sources.
  8. Develop an emergency response plan: Establish a clear emergency response plan for lithium fires that includes evacuation procedures, emergency contact numbers, and the locations of appropriate fire extinguishers. Ensure that all personnel are familiar with the plan and conduct regular drills to maintain readiness.

Understanding the differences between lithium battery fires and lithium metal fires is crucial for selecting the right fire extinguisher and implementing the best practices for handling these situations. By using the appropriate fire extinguishers, implementing safety measures, and providing training to personnel, fires involving lithium batteries and lithium metals can be managed safely and effectively. Always prioritize safety and preparedness to minimize risks and ensure the well-being of everyone involved.

As a Johnson Controls distributor, All Florida Fire Equipment can provide you the proper fire extinguisher for either a lithium battery or lithium fire.


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