Why are battery-powered devices designed to prevent physical damage?

In most instances, lithium-ion batteries function normally: charging and discharging energy without issue. Thermal runaway can occur when something alters the normal function of a battery – by physically damaging it.

Safety note

Safety scientists test batteries and other products in order to understand what happens when a product fails. These tests are always performed in controlled laboratory settings. This is important in order to be certain that the test results are valid and the scientists are safe as they perform the tests.

Do not attempt to recreate these tests yourself: instead, this pathway will take you to the lab virtually. If you are interested in performing similar tests yourself, consider pursuing a career as a safety scientist!

Asset: Crush Test
Extreme Test

Crush Test

One test that safety scientists perform on lithium-ion batteries is known as the crush test. The crush test is used to determine how a battery will respond to extreme force — in this case, pressure.

Extreme Test

Blunted Nail Test

Another test used by safety scientists is known as the blunted nail test. It determines the effects on a lithium-ion battery when the battery’s protective cover is dented.

Asset: Blunted Nail Test

Drop Test

Most of the portable electrical devices in our world are subject to potential damage every day. Consider the hoverboard. After being thrown into the corner of the garage, falling off a shelf, or just hitting too many bumps in the road, at what point does it become unsafe?

Your job, as a safety scientist in this experiment, is to explore what can happen to the portable electrical power system in a virtual hoverboard when you drop it from different heights and run it. Do not attempt this test at home!

Your challenge

Perform three drop tests on the virtual hoverboard to determine how drops from varying heights affect the chances of thermal runaway as an outcome. In this test, you will:

  • Drop the hoverboard from different heights. Be sure to test at least one low, medium, and high drop.
  • Examine the hoverboard for physical damage after the drop.
  • Run the hoverboard to determine whether it is still safe to use.
Asset: The Drop Zone

Physical damage can lead to thermal runaway by creating an internal short circuit within a lithium-ion battery.

This can happen quickly, or damage can remain latent – and later, manifest itself catastrophically. 

Because of this, it’s important to be sure that devices containing lithium-ion batteries are manufactured in a way that meets safety standards. It’s also important to treat these devices with care.


Why is it important to protect lithium-ion batteries from physical damage?


Building a problem definition for thermal runaway

Some of our hardest-working rechargeable toys take on a lot of physical damage. Pretend that you are designing the hoverboard or one-wheel locomotion device of your dreams for use on sidewalks around a school. Brainstorm at least three specific risks for damage the device might face while being used or stored. How could those risks affect the battery?

Want to design a solution that would prevent physical damage? Continue through the pathway to learn more about the problem of thermal runaway so you can solve the engineering design challenge at the end of the pathway.

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