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lithium-ion batteries

What are lithium-ion batteries, and how do they catch fire? Here’s what to know

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Chances are, you probably own a device powered by lithium-ion batteries. The energy source is convenient for its ability to pack a lot of charge into a slim package. Lithium-ion batteries are considered safe and used by many, but it’s important to be aware of potential safety threats.

On Thursday, a Tampa children’s clinic was evacuated due to damaged lithium-ion batteries that released highly flammable hydrogen gas, injuring three. Off-gassing, or gas leakage, is just one of the risks posed by lithium-ion batteries.

Last month, four people were killed in a fire at an e-bike store in New York, and officials said lithium-ion batteries sparked the blaze. And per the FAA, as of June 14, there have been 464 incidents involving smoke, fire or extreme heat on planes due to lithium batteries since March 3, 2006.

Lithium-ion batteries power items such as smartphones, laptops, electric scooters and bikes, e-cigarettes, wheelchairs, smoke alarms, toys and cars. They’re lightweight, contain high energy density and recharge easily, the Department of Energy says. But the battery’s popularity and ease of use make it all the more important for users to look out for potential dangers, according to David Dittman, Tampa Fire Rescue training chief.

“If not used correctly, or if damaged, these batteries can catch on fire or explode,” he said.

Dittman said the explosive nature of lithium-ion battery blazes, in combination with the threat of electrocution, make it especially difficult for firefighters to manage the scene. During an event in June, he trained the rest of Tampa Fire Rescue on how to respond to the perils of lithium-ion battery fires.

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