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Plugged-In Peril: Battery Safety Still a Pressing Issue

Recent fires in Wichita and NYC highlight the safety concerns associated with battery-powered devices.

Jake Hertz

May 20, 2023

4 Min Read
Stock image of firefighters spraying water at the base of orange flames. Fires caused by lithium-ion batteries are notoriously difficult to extinguish.Credit: Ted Horowitz Photography / The Image Bank via Getty Images

Powering our modern world, batteries have become an indispensable component of our daily lives. From smartphones and laptops to electric vehicles and renewable energy storage systems, batteries enable mobility, convenience, and sustainable energy solutions. Specifically, lithium-ion batteries, renowned for their high energy density and rechargeable nature, have become the preferred choice for countless applications.

However, as their usage proliferates, so do concerns regarding battery safety. The potential risks associated with batteries, particularly lithium-ion batteries, have captured significant attention in recent years.

About a year ago, Battery Technology explored the question of battery safety, where we dove into the details of lithium-ion batteries and what makes them safe or unsafe. As time has passed since that piece, it seems that battery safety concerns have only gotten greater. Instances of battery fires and explosions have garnered media attention, highlighting the need for a comprehensive understanding of battery safety.

In this article, we’ll look at some recent news highlighting battery safety concerns and try to answer the question: Are batteries safe?

Electric bus fire in Wichita

In 2019, Wichita, Kansas achieved a significant milestone by becoming the first city in Kansas to incorporate 100% electric, zero-emission buses into its fleet. The buses offer a serene riding experience while covering a distance of 150 miles on a single overnight charge.

Last week, serenity was shaken for Wichita residents when one of those electric buses caught fire.

The fire, which resulted in $650,000 worth of damages, started around 1:30 am when the bus was parked away for the night. While the bus had been used earlier in the day, it was not actively charging when it caught fire. According to reports, the cause of the fire still remains largely unknown. Fortunately, firefighters were eventually able to put the fire out, and there are no reported injuries or deaths.

To make things worse, this fire marks the second lithium-ion battery-related fire to occur in Wichita in the past two weeks. A week earlier, a fire started when a resident was charging a lithium-ion battery pack on their back porch. Luckily, no one was injured in this fire either.

While neither fire resulted in harm to humans, the recency of the two events has raised concerns within the community about the general safety of lithium-ion batteries.

E-mobility scares in New York City

Moving to another part of the country: In New York City, lithium-ion battery fires are becoming a prominent issue as well.

According to reports, NYC alone has seen over 80 electric battery fires so far in 2023, of which 60 injuries and 9 deaths have resulted. In NYC, the more common cause of these fires seems to be related to the charging of electric bikes and scooters, as we described a month ago.

In response, the NYC MTA has announced a public ban on the charging of electric batteries while on the NYC subway system. Additionally, the new policy states that e-scooters and e-bikes must be turned off while inside the subway system.

Are Batteries Safe?

All of these relevant news sources raise a serious question: are electric batteries safe? Unfortunately, this is one of those questions that doesn’t have a concrete answer.

A year ago, Battery Technology explored this question, diving into the details of lithium-ion batteries and what makes them unsafe. What we see is that batteries themselves are always going to have some inherent risk associated with them being that their function is to store energy. However, that’s not to say that there can’t be greater design measures and policies enacted to ensure greater safety for the public.

Moving forward, it will be important for government bodies to start having tighter regulations on battery manufacturing as well as usage. Like the policies enacted in NYC, controlling the ways that individuals use their batteries could go a long way to protecting the general population. So, while batteries are never going to be 100% safe, they can undoubtedly be made safe enough for public use.

About the Author(s)

Jake Hertz

Jake Hertz is an Electrical Engineer, Technical Writer, and Public Relations Specialist. After he received his M.S. and B.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of Rochester, he spent three years working as an Electrical Engineer at MakerBot Industries. 

As a writer, Jake is well known for his frequent contributions to various engineering websites, where he has garnered readership in the tens of thousands. Through his business, NanoHertz Solutions, Jake works with cutting-edge companies in the hardware and semiconductor space to build industry buzz and awareness through Public Relations and Technical Writing services.

As an engineer, Jake now works with numerous startups to help develop their hardware products. He is also a Co-Founder of Origin Labs, a NYC-based design firm for tech startups in the hardware space.

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