Lithium-ion battery fires wreak havoc on New York City

Some 200 fires were caused by malfunctioning batteries or chargers from e-bikes and e-mobility devices already this year

An e-bike charging
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Nearly 200 fires in New York City were caused by malfunctioning lithium ion batteries on mobility devices already this year, the New York Fire Department reports.

This announcements comes on the heels of a Manhattan apartment building fire that injured at least 38 people on Saturday morning. This particular fire broke out on the 20th floor of a Midtown high-rise building and required fire fighters to make some daring, rope rappelling rescues, the New York Times reports

The authorities quickly deduced that a lithium-ion battery in an electric bicycle was to blame, and that the apartment unit where the fire had started housed at least five e-bikes. 

In New York City, these lithium-ion battery fires have already resulted in six deaths, and dozens of injuries.  

With micro-mobility transportation devices such as e-bikes, e-scooters and hoverboards growing in popularity, fires caused by large lithium-ion batteries are becoming a serious problem in cities the world over. The London Fire Bridge too reports high numbers of such fires — 104 fires this year already in fact. 

Now rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are a common power source. You'll find them in smart phones, tables, e-cigarettes and cameras. Here too, faulty chargers have caused fires in the past but these products have improved in recent years.

The problem with chargers and batteries in this new wave of electric mobility devices at the moment are the abundance of cheap, poorly made, untested products from disreputable sources that are sold via the internet and do not adhere to any safety standards.

"Lithium-ion batteries are a good option for e-bikes because they can store a lot of energy within a small space with an energy density of up to 100 times higher than other battery alternatives," Oscar Moyo BEng Msc MINCOSE MIET, lead systems engineer at TT Electronics, told Cycling Weekly

"When these types of batteries explode, it's mainly due to the flow of the ions becoming abnormal or unstable and this can be caused by multiple of things, for example damaged cells, contaminants within the battery due to poor manufacturing as well as overheating, with overcharging the usual factor here.

"The result of this can be very unpredictable - it can be a rapid explosion, or a slow smouldering with occasional flare-ups. To get around this safety issue most expensive batteries have safety vents built into the case as a pressure releasing mechanism."

FDNY Chief Fire Marshal Daniel Flynn implores e-mobility device users to read up on Lithium-ion safety tips, to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for charging and storage and always use the manufacturer’s cord and power adapter made specifically for the device.

When purchasing devices, buy from reputable sources or check yourself to see if the product was tested for safety and meets the internationally recognized Underwriters Laboratories Mark standards. These products will carry an embossed or otherwise visible UL mark

It's also always a good idea to not leave your charging devices unattended or on the charger for an extended time. 

If you do notice a battery overheating or you notice an odor, change in shape or color, leaking or odd noises coming from a device, discontinue use immediately. If safe to do so, move the device away from anything that can catch fire. 

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