As consumer devices shrink, smaller but more powerful batteries are becoming more popular, and lithium-based batteries have become the preferred energy source to power a wide variety of consumer goods. Companies are constantly finding more novel applications for batteries, from children’s toys, to wearable technology in the fashion industry, to car accessories in the automotive industry. In the age of constant cell phone and laptop monitoring, lithium ion batteries are everywhere we look.
With the rise in number of lithium battery products, the safety and potential hazards of lithium batteries have attracted more media, legal and regulatory attention. Lithium batteries are safe and have been approved for consumer use, but with millions of consumers using batteries, failures are bound to happen. Historically, there have been a handful of battery-related recalls each year. However, the number of recalls has sharply increased in recent years. Although there were only about three battery-related recalls in 2015, there were over twenty in 2016, half of which included highly-publicized hoverboard and smartphone recalls involving lithium-based batteries overheating and posing a fire hazard.
Separately, the transportation of lithium ion batteries continues to garner significant attention, as there have been publicized reports of lithium batteries overheating, catching fire, or even exploding when disturbed or exposed to various conditions during transport. Most notably, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) guidelines prohibit air shipments for any lithium battery products recalled for safety reasons.
This puts even the most well-meaning companies at a serious dilemma when it comes to the implementation of product recalls involving lithium batteries: how to collect recalled batteries to ensure proper disposal while accounting for the risk of transporting recalled batteries across the country. Furthermore, because recycling and waste facilities vary in the type of waste they will accept, it is difficult to issue consumers general instructions on how to properly dispose of lithium-based batteries. And it is even more uncertain as to whether those regional facilities will accept recalled batteries at all.
Recommendations for the Future
For now, the trend among CPSC recalls appears to favor the recalling company collecting recalled batteries from consumers in order to ensure proper disposal. To combat the increased risk presented by such transportation, a host of administration services that specialize in packaging and transport of recalled or damaged batteries have sprung up to meet this market need. But such services are typically expensive and in some cases, the cost of collecting the battery-operated product could be higher than the cost of the product itself. One potential alternative solution is to advise consumers to return recalled batteries to certain retail store locations. But this requires that collecting stores be willing to take on some risk, and retail staff must be properly educated about storage and disposal of the recalled batteries.
To reduce the risk of a battery-related recall, companies using lithium ion batteries in their products should test—and double-test—their battery-powered products before going to market. Do not rely only on established voluntary standards, but think carefully about how the battery integrates with your product. If no voluntary or other standards apply to your product, superimpose other battery-related testing requirements onto your product. At least implement the following:
A circuit board that contains battery management electronics to prevent overcharge. A positive thermal coefficient (PTC) including a plastic piece that expands when heated, causing conductive materials to separate under high current conditions. A current interrupt device (CID) that activates and disables the battery under high pressure.
These protection mechanisms can help prevent an expensive recall of battery-powered products.