Blog Post

Not all Lithium Ion Batteries are Created Equal

You’ve seen it in the news – Lithium Ion batteries in phones, hoverboards, cars, homes, utility projects, battery factories and laptops spontaneously catching fire. But did you know that not all Lithium Ion batteries pose a fire danger?

In fact, there are a number of different battery chemistries that make up the “Lithium Ion” category – each with its own chemical composition and properties:

  • LCO – Lithium Cobalt Oxide
  • NMC – Lithium Nickel Manganese Cobalt Oxide
  • LMO – Lithium Manganese Oxide
  • NCA – Lithium Nickel Cobalt Aluminum Oxide
  • LFP – Lithium Iron Phosphate

When it comes to overheating, fire and thermal runaway, it’s not the Lithium (Li) that presents a hazard – it’s the Cobalt.

Lithium Cobalt Oxide (LCO) is commonly used in cell phones, laptops and digital cameras, and Lithium Manganese Cobalt (LMC or LCM) is used in most electric cars. Both are known to break down at much lower temperatures and release far more potentially hazardous energy than other Li compounds.

What’s more, cobalt-based Li batteries actually create heat as part of their normal operation. That means they create exponentially greater risk of thermal runaway than if they didn’t create any heat at all.  Using cobalt is a little like putting lighter fluid on your charcoal, and then throwing a match on it.

To make matters worse, there is no effective fire retardant against a cobalt fire. When a cobalt fire starts, the only response is to let it burn itself out.

Li battery makers that include Cobalt and Manganese have taken steps to mitigate the risk by using cooling and ventilation systems. While such systems may help reduce the risks, they don’t eliminate them.

By contrast, Lithium Iron Phosphate (also known as Lithium Ferrous Phosphate) generates very little heat and poses no risk of thermal runaway or fire without the need for ventilation or cooling. LFP batteries are far and away the safest option on the market.

When it comes to safety, toxicity is also a concern. Cobalt presents toxic risk at every point along the product pipeline – from the moment the element is extracted from the earth until the time the battery is thrown away or recycled.

For cobalt miners – including the young children who are often forced into the practice – exposure to the toxic metal is known to cause breathing problems and birth defects. Factory workers are also at risk, as according to the CDC, chronic exposure to cobalt-containing hard metal (dust or fumes) can result in a serious lung disease called “hard metal lung disease” and inhalation of cobalt particles can cause respiratory sensitization, asthma, shortness of breath, and decreased pulmonary function.

When it comes to disposal, there is also a risk that the batteries will release toxic gases if damaged, endangering both sanitation workers and communities.

LFP is the only Lithium Ion chemistry that does not contaminate the environment or pose any hazard to living organisms.

Safer battery options exist for commercial, home and mobile storage — including the full SimpliPhi LFP product line. So when it comes to safety of your energy storage solution, think carefully about the chemistry and be sure that to choose a battery you can live with!