Scientists from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) discovered a new chemical recipe that could reduce the chance of lithium-ion batteries catching fire, Ars Technica reports. ORNL Physicist Gabriel Veith is concerned manufacturers may be unwilling to overhaul production to include non-flammable solid electrodes. In response, Veith said he and his team are researching how to change the current electrolyte recipe in the batteries, inspired by a cornstarch and water composite – called “oobleck” – made in children’s science classes.
Why are lithium batteries dangerous?
Lithium batteries have two electrodes in a flammable lithium liquid, separated by a thin plastic sheet. When the sheet is damaged or breaks, the electrodes can touch and short the battery, producing heat. The heat ignites the liquid and causes a fire.
The FAA prohibits anything with a lithium-ion battery in checked luggage for this reason. Pack a vape, have it get thrown around in baggage handling, set in the plane’s belly, and that is another recipe: a fire disaster. The FAA reported 46 battery explosions in 2017.
So how do these fireproof batteries work?
The ORNL recipe calls to suspend silica nanoparticles in the lithium fluid, which act like a thickening agent under pressure, solidifying upon impact (like oobleck does when slapped or punched), and then slowly relaxing back to a loosely bonded state. This would essentially harden the lithium liquid enough to prevent the electrodes from touching.
Similar formulae are used in other fields, like liquid armor worn by skiers. Veith reported batteries produced this way would have take a little longer to charge, with a slightly lesser charge capacity. These minor drawbacks are easy to consider, though, when the counter is a life-threatening explosion. Veith says the recipe requires only minor modification to battery production. If vape battery manufacturers (predominantly based in Shenzhen, China) adopt the new recipe, it could have longstanding implications for the increased safety of vapes over cigarettes.