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TechnicalNote:UnderstandingThermalRunaway
EddieDeveau
DirectorofEngineering,Alber
Scope:
ThisTechnicalNote(TN)providesinformationforabetterunderstandingofthermalrunaway,reason
fordetection,howitoccurs,detectingandcontrollingandabriefsummaryofthermalrunaway.
WhyDetectThermalRunaway
Thermalrunawaycanbeaverydestructiveandseriousconditiononstandbybatteriesifnotidentifiedin
thebeginningofthedevelopmentstages.Ifthermalrunawayisignored,severedamagetothebattery
aswellassurroundingequipmentcanoccurresultingincostlyrepairsorworse,injurytopersonnel.In
allcases,thermalrunawaycanleadtoabruptsystemfailureanddisruptionofserviceifnotdetected.A
proactivemethodofsomeformmustbeinstitutedtodealwithathermalrunawaycondition.
Furthermore,asdescribedintheInternationalFireCode(IFC),VRLAbatterysystemsshallbeprovided
withalisteddeviceorotherapprovedmethodtopreclude,detectandcontrolthermalrunaway(IFC
608.3)
(2)
.
HowDoesThermalRunawayOccur
Typically,thermalrunawayisconsideredtobemostprevalentonVRLAbatteriesbut,canalsooccur
withVLAbatteries
(1)
.Thermalrunawayoccurswhilethebatteryisoncharge,eitherinatypicalfloat
stateorrechargefollowingadischargeevent.Essentially,theinternalheatgeneratedduringcharging
exceedstherateatwhichtheheatcanbedissipatedthroughthebatterycaseintotheenvironment.
Thisconditionisexacerbatedbyseveralcircumstancesbutinallcaseswillcausethebatterytodemand
morefloatcurrentwhichultimatelyleadstothermalrunaway.
MaincausesofThermalRunawayinclude:
HighoperatingtemperatureAstheambienttemperatureincreasesthechargevoltagemustbe
compensatedtoreducetheamountoffloatcurrentdeliveredtothebattery.Failuretodosowill
resultinincreasedplategridcorrosion,acceleratedgassinganddryoutandeventuallythermal
runaway.
Systemfailuressuchasgroundfaults,shortedcellsandlossofchargerregulation,excessiveAC
ripplevoltageorcurrentallplayafactorindevelopingthermalrunaway.

Itisimportanttounderstandtherelationshipbetweenambienttemperatureandchargervoltage.For
example;thehighestchargevoltagethatcanbeappliedwithouttheriskofthermalrunawayis2.32
Voltsat77F.Ifambienttemperatureincreases,thechargervoltagemustbecompensateddown.Ifthe
voltageisnotcompensateddown,gassingwilloccuratahigherratethanrecombinationcantakeplace.
Internalpressurewillbuildinthebattery,causingittoventandgenerateheat.Thebattery
manufacturershavetablesshowingambienttemperatureversusmaxchargevoltage.
DetectingandControllingThermalRunaway
Oneofthemostprevailingmethodsfordetectingathermalrunawayconditionismonitoringthefloat
current.Everyfailuremodeleadinguptothermalrunawaywillexhibitanincreaseinfloatcurrent.
Anothermethodcommonlyusedintheindustryistomeasurebatterytemperature.However,
monitoringbatterytemperaturewillonlymeasuretheeffectthermalrunawayhasonabatteryandis
usuallytoolatetotakeactionastheprocessisalreadyinprogress.
Withfloatcurrentbeingthepreemptivemetricfordeterminingthermalrunaway,theAlbermonitoring
equipmentusesthisparameterasitsdetectionmethod.Thisparameterhasprogrammablethresholds
totriggeralarmnotificationsthatarecommunicatedviasound,emailnotificationsorrelayclosures.In
addition,theserelayclosurescanbeusedtointerfacetochargingsystemsthatpermitcontrollingthe
chargingvoltageofthebatterybyeitheractivatingapresetfoldback(reducedvoltage)ofthechargeror
disconnectingthechargercompletely.
Summary
Intheeventofathermalrunawayevent,permanentdamagetothebatterywilltakeplaceandbattery
replacementisinevitable.Batterytemperaturescanreachashighas320F(160C)resultinginmelting
ofthebatterycases.Duringthethermalrunaway,emissionofhydrogensulfidegaswilltakeplaceandis
evidentofarotteneggodor.Terminationofanychargemusttakeplaceimmediatelyandproper
ventilationshouldbeactivated.
Preventingtheonsetofthermalrunawayisaveryobtainablegoalwithaproperbatterymaintenance
program.Theonlywaytoeffectivelypreventthermalrunawayisbyhavingsomesortoffulltime
monitoringsystem.Withoutpropermonitoring,thediligencerequiredtoscrutinizeallthepossible
scenariosisverydifficult.Aspartofasuccessfulmaintenanceprogram,havingapredictivestateof
health(SOH)measurementlikeinternalresistancealongwithconstantfloatcurrent,voltagesand
temperaturemonitoringcanpreventtheonsetofthermalrunawayaswellasahostofotherfailure
modes.
References
(1) GlennAlberandMikeNispel,ThermalRunawayInFloodLeadCalciumBatteries
(2) ICC,2012ICCInternationalFireCode(IFC)