Video: What it looks like when a lithium-ion battery explodes

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Lithium batteries are among the most common batteries in the world. They mostly power your smartphones, laptops and tablets, along with hybrid and electric cars. But recently, they've also made headlines for catching fire.

In 2013, Boeing grounded its entire fleet of Boeing 787 Dreamliners after the lithium batteries on two planes caught on fire. Automaker Tesla has had its own issues with the lithium batteries in its luxury cars going up in flames.

Scientists don't really understand the internal processes that culminate in a lithium battery exploding, and that's a problem because "in the future, we're going to use them for a much greater range of different things," says Paul Shearing, a chemical engineer at University College London, in a video explaining a study about how lithium batteries react to extreme heat. (You can watch the video below) "As we move to more and more demanding applications, it's crucial that we understand how these batteries can operate safely."


And what better way to do that than to blow them up?

In a new paper in the journal Nature Communications today, Shearing and his team recorded how much overheating it took for a lithium battery to explode, using a combination of high-frequency X-ray imaging and thermal imaging. Using these techniques, they were able to record simultaneously what the battery was going through, both internally and externally, when they exposed them to a range of temperatures up to a few hundred degrees.


As the temperature inside a battery cell rises, the internal components start to melt. At a certain temperature, the system reaches what scientists call "thermal runaway," the point at which the system becomes so unwieldy chemically that it's no longer stable and it explodes. Creating batteries that were more resistant to thermal runaway could be a way to make them safer, according to the paper.

By understanding under what conditions commercial lithium batteries might fail, the scientists hope they'll be able to  provide manufacturers with guidelines on how to make them more resilient. For instance, keeping an explosion contained to just one of the battery cells could be another way to make gadgets and appliances that operate on lithium batteries from going up in smoke.

You can see the explosion in the video below, starting at around 2:35. It's pretty rad:

Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.