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What causes all the battery fires of e-bikes and e-scooters?

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New York City struggles with a problem: fire. In particular, escooter and ebike lithium-ion batteries catch fire and sometimes explode. And there is no sign that it will end any time soon.

Earlier this year I wrote an introductory article on the burn rate in lithium-ion batteries. Today I want to look at New York as a cautionary tale in the fight against battery fires as e-bikes (and, to a lesser extent, e-scooters) become mainstream.

I will be following a third article tomorrow, exploring possible technological solutions to prevent battery fires.

What Causes Battery Fires?

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In the case of e-bikes and e-scooter fires, there are numerous causes. First, when we talk about a lithium-ion battery for e-bikes or e-scooters, we are talking about a number of connected batteries that are stored in a plastic case. There is an enormous amount of energy in this small space.

Each of the batteries is prone to overheating which can be caused by;

  • bad design
  • mounting errors
  • electrical short circuit
  • using the wrong charger
  • overloaded
  • A damaged battery management system (BMS) causes overheating and insufficient cooling
  • damage to the case.

Once a battery overheats, it can lead to a thermal reaction in a battery. This is known as a thermal runway. The reaction produces enough heat to ignite or explode adjacent battery cells as well.

These fires happen incredibly quickly and due to the self-perpetuating process of thermal runaway fires, lithium batteries are also difficult to extinguish. They can leak toxic chemicals dangerous for people and pets.

Large batteries such as those used in electric vehicles can re-ignite hours or even days after the event, even after being extinguished. Fortunately, this is much less common with e-bikes and e-scooters.

The problem in New York

To date this year, 130 reported fires involving lithium-ion batteries in electric bicycles and scooters have been reported in New York. Five people died. By comparison, there were only 65 fires on e-bikes and e-scooters around this time last year.

It is worth emphasizing that these fires represent only a small percentage of all fires in New York. It is also very likely that the growth of e-bikes and e-scooters living in the city is responsible for the increase.

But the fires are still a cause for concern, causing property damage, injuries and less often death. The ferocity of burning a lithium-ion battery means calling out multiple trucks, diverting attention from other emergency services.

Furthermore, the fires point to a bigger problem facing the city.

New York has more than 65,000 delivery drivers, many of whom use e-bikes. Gig economy workers are pushing their ebike to its limits beyond the daily commute, outsourcing all the risk to the riders.

gig economy worker ebike battery