Hundreds of fires across Australia have been linked to lithium-ion batteries, which are used to power light electric vehicles like e-scooters and e-bikes.
- Fire and Rescue NSW is responding to more than three fires every week involving lithium-ion batteries
- This week, a Brisbane house fire was started by an e-scooter battery exploding
- The Competition and Consumer Commission is currently investigating the risks and regulations associated with lithium-ion batteries
In Australia, more than 450 fires have been linked to lithium-ion batteries over the past 18 months, according to data provided by state fire departments.
Most states only started tracking incidents involving lithium-ion batteries in recent years, however, Western Australia recorded 81 of these incidents last year, compared with 21 in 2018.
Fire and Rescue New South Wales said it responded to about 180 lithium-ion battery-related fires in the past 12 months, Victoria had 120 in the year to July, and Queensland had recorded 72 since 2021.
The latter figure included an e-scooter that caught fire at a Brisbane house last week and five people were hospitalised.
There was another Brisbane house fire caused by an e-scooter battery exploding on Tuesday. A man in his 40s was sent to hospital in a serious condition and a woman and two children were also hospitalised for smoke inhalation.
Fire authorities across the country have linked the increase in these incidents to the huge growth in small, battery powered vehicles like e-bikes and e-scooters.
Fire and Rescue NSW assistant commissioner for community safety, Trent Curtin, said firefighters in that state were responding to more than three fires every week involving lithium-ion batteries.
“It’s a concerning trend that we are seeing similarly across the world — in New York and in London,” he told 7.30.
“I’m really concerned that somewhere in Australia we are going to see deaths as a result of fires involving lithium-ion batteries.
“At this stage, it’s still really early to say what the best possible solutions are.
“But I think the regulation of the sale of e-bikes and e-scooters to make sure that people are only buying the best possible product quality is a really good solution to help people in the first instance.”
In 2017, there were about 9,000 e-bikes sold in Australia, compared with more than 75,000 last year.
Peter Bourke from Bicycle Industries Australia said the growth in light electric vehicles had been huge, and he expected the growth to continue.
“As governments have made personal [e-rideables] legal, [like] we’ve seen in Queensland and Western Australia, the number of people using e-rideables for commuting and transport has exploded,” he said.
While the benefits are well known – easing congestion and offering a cheaper and greener alternative – Mr Bourke said the rising number of battery-related fires was a concern.
“One of our challenges is the fact that people are choosing to source product that either should not be [used] together or is of a very low or very inferior quality,” he said.
“There is very good quality product being sold through reputable outlets and we want to make sure that as we move forward, the legislation supports the use of these bikes and scooters because we know it has a positive impact.”
In a statement, the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council told 7.30 that fires involving lithium-ion batteries were particularly challenging for firefighters due to the nature of the risks and hazards they posed.
“Lithium-ion batteries are highly energy-dense and contain electrolytes that are highly flammable,” an AFAC spokeswoman said.
“Fires can be triggered by overcharging, overheating or exposure to extreme temperatures, physical abuse, short-circuiting, battery cell defects and ageing.
“When LiBs [lithium-ion batteries]fail they can undergo thermal runaway. This can involve violent bursting of one or multiple battery cells, release of toxic, corrosive, flammable, and explosive vapours and gases, and an intense, self-sustaining fire that can be difficult to extinguish.”
Australian firefighters look to US
Mr Curtin from Fire and Rescue NSW said Australian authorities are watching closely how the issue is playing out in overseas jurisdictions that are further ahead in the uptake of light electric vehicles.
“Unfortunately, in overseas circumstances, and particularly in New York, we’ve seen fires where people have been trapped in their apartment from an e-bike on fire, and firefighters have had to scale the outside of the building to rescue people,” he said.
In November, the city of New York held a committee hearing into the number of fires involving e-bikes and lithium-ion batteries after several high-profile and deadly apartment building fires.
Thomas Currao from the New York City Fire Department told the inquiry there had been a huge rise in deadly fires linked to lithium-ion batteries, and the spike correlated with increased use of battery-powered mobility devices.
“Whereas an injury stemming from a lithium-ion battery was a relatively rare occurrence in 2019 – when we saw only a total of 13 such injuries – in 2021, we experienced 79,” he said.
“As of today [November 14], we’ve already identified 140 injuries and 191 fires attributed to lithium-ion batteries. Tragically, these fires have also led to six fatalities.
“[In 2022] we have experienced as many injuries, deaths, and overall fires involving lithium-ion batteries as we have from the previous three years combined.”
New Yorker Baruch Herzfeld, who is a passionate electric vehicle enthusiast, started an organisation called Safer Charging that has been pushing for better infrastructure and regulations.
Mr Herzfeld’s organisation is calling for a regulatory framework that would ensure only certified batteries are sold, which would then be tracked, inspected and monitored from the time of sale until they were properly recycled.
He said in the longer term he wants to see a swappable battery network that charged batteries outside of people’s apartments.
“The growth in electric vehicles is not just a USA phenomenon, it’s a phenomenon worldwide,” he told 7.30.
“Everybody’s realising how much safer and more efficient these electric bicycles and electric scooters are. The use of light electric vehicles is very important for the planet and for public life in the city. And it’s just going to continue to grow.
“It’s very important that the government pays attention to this phenomenon and invests wisely in resources, regulation and subsidies to ensure that people continue to use light electric vehicles.”
ACCC investigating why scooters are ‘bursting into flames’
Back in Australia, the Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is currently investigating the risks and regulations associated with lithium-ion batteries.
ACCC deputy chair Delia Rickard said it will report to government with recommendations by the middle of the year.
“We all have more lithium-ion batteries in our homes these days, whether it’s our smart phone, our laptop, the cordless drill, the cordless vacuum cleaner, even those things people vape from,” she said.
“And unfortunately we are seeing more and more incidents with them where they burst into flames, they do damage to property, and worse still, they burn people.
“So we want to understand what’s causing the problems and how we stop them.”
She said the ACCC was looking at everything from industry codes and mandatory standards, to bans on the most unsafe batteries and warning labels.