The Threat of Thermal Runaway
If you’ve flown in the last couple decades, you’ve surely been made aware of the danger of lithium-ion batteries aboard aircraft: spontaneous combustion of laptop batteries in the baggage hold, smartphones sandwiched between the seats catching fire (you know, the whole “don’t move your seat, call a flight attendant” spiel). But what about lithium-ion batteries provokes such misbehavior? It actually comes down to physics, chemistry, and one major inherent limitation present in many battery configurations – thermal runaway. In fact, the threat of thermal runaway remains a large safety concern not only for airlines but for a myriad of other industries, including the burgeoning battery electric vehicle sector. But while the unpredictability of a lithium-ion battery catastrophe can instill fear in the average consumer, the chemistry and physics of thermal runaway are not a mystery. In fact, it’s a fairly well understood process. Let’s dive in.