E-Cigarette Explosions Explained

Electronic cigarettes have paved a path for smokers to get their nicotine fix in a safer way. However, with recent news reports of the devices exploding into bursts of flames, many consumers now wary of the safety concerns.

E-cigarettes are relatively simple devices. Powered by a battery, an internal heating element vaporizes the liquid solution in the cartridge. But for a New York teen, the process wasn’t as simple as he expected.

Anatomy of an e-cigarette

According to a report by USA Today, the teen pressed the button to activate his e-cigarette and it exploded in his hands like “a bomb went off.”

Investigators expect that the device’s lithium-ion battery malfunctioned. Li-ion batteries, however, are the driving force behind personal electronics, electric vehicles, and even have potential in large-scale grid storage. So why are devices like hoverboards and e-cigarettes experiencing such issues with Li-ion battery safety when so many other applications consider the energy dense, long-life battery a non-safety hazard?

Safety issues

“It is safe to say that these well-publicized hazardous events are rooted in the uncontrolled release of the large amount of energy stored in Li-ion batteries as a result of manufacturing defects, inferior active and inactive materials used to build cells and battery packs, substandard manufacturing and quality control practices by a small fraction of cell manufacturers, and user abuses of overcharge and over-discharge, short-circuit, external thermal shocks and violent mechanical impacts,” wrote K.M. Abraham, ECS member and pioneering in Li-ion and Li-air batteries, in a recent article. “All of these mistreatments can lead Li-ion batteries to thermal runaway reactions accompanied by the release of hot combustible organic solvents which catch fire upon contact with oxygen in the atmosphere.”

According to the U.S. Fire Administration’s 2014 Electronic Cigarette Fires and Explosions report, more than 2.5 million Americans use e-cigarettes. The report goes on to state that 25 separate incidents of explosions and fires involving e-cigarettes were reported in the U.S. media between 2009 and Aug. 2014. Many of the incidents resort back to mistreatment or poor manufacturing of the device’s Li-ion battery.

Battery problems

“The electrolyte inside the battery is basically the equivalent of gasoline,” says ECS member Venkat Viswanathan in an interview with NBC News. “So when these batteries short out, there’s a surge of heat that causes this flammable electrolyte to combust and explode.”

As this problem continues to grow, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Food and Drug Administration are attempting to gain the authority to regulate the e-cigarette industry.

PS: Want to learn more about lithium-ion battery safety and potential. Join us at the 2016 International Meeting on Lithium Batteries!

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