An accident involving an unwrapped lithium-ion battery and loose change resulted in burns for one student at Albertville High School on Tuesday afternoon.
“The student had three batteries in his pocket,” Albertville Fire Department Capt. Brent Ennis said. “I’m not sure what the batteries were for. The student said they were cellphone batteries. He had them in his pocket with some loose change. The batteries came in contact with the change and caused a short.”
Ennis said the short caused the batteries, which were the same shape, but slightly longer than a AA battery, to explode, and inflict second-and-possibly-third degree burns on another student.
According to the victim’s mother, Courtney Kinneman, when the battery exploded, “It shot up and landed in the neck of [her son’s] shirt.”
Kinneman praised the “insanely quick” response of the Albertville Fire Department and the school’s nurse who cared for her son.
Cylindrical lithium-ion batteries can be found in some portable cellphone chargers, along with many e-cigarette chargers, which have garnered media attention in recent months because of their potential to combust.
A 2011 study conducted by the Fire Protection Research Foundation found that “during the typical failure mode for a lithium-ion battery, the electrolyte is heated to its boiling point, the internal pressure in the battery builds to a point where the seal at the end of the battery ruptures, and the pressure is abruptly released through the sealed end of the battery case.”
A 2014 FEMA study found key differences between cellphone batteries and the type found in e-cigarettes and other portable chargers when it comes to the composition of the battery.
Cellphone batteries tend to be flat and encased within a sealed flexible plastic or a thin rigid plastic case, while the other batteries are cylindrical and encased within a metal can. The result is a difference in the way the batteries fail.
According to the study, cylindrical batteries are weak at the ends, resulting in near instantaneous rupture and a “bullet or small-rocket” type of launch. Flat batteries, which don’t typically explode violently, do run the risk of having ignited electrolytes catch fire and spread beyond the device.