From Safety Issue to UL Standard to the Classroom

The Portable Electrical Power module from UL Xplorlabs puts students into the shoes of Underwriters Laboratories’ (UL) foremost battery experts, as they learn about lithium-ion batteries, study key concepts like thermal runaway and think like a scientist to identify solutions to safety issues like hoverboards and button batteries.

The module is grounded in real-world safety challenges that have made headlines and inspired solutions. But how did this module come about? How did a safety issue become a UL Standard and then a classroom lesson?

In 2015, hoverboards had taken the world by storm, quickly becoming the must-have gift for the holiday season. The market was flooded with hoverboards, many of which were quickly designed, built and sold according to unspecified manufacturing standards, resulting in fires traced to the lithium-ion batteries used in the products.

The issues started when a battery cell went into thermal runaway and then ignited the cells around it. With 20 lithium-ion batteries, thermal runaway was leading to large-scale explosions.

UL, a leading global safety science organization, responded by developing the technical criteria for the UL 2272 Standard for e-Mobility devices in less than eight weeks, providing the mechanism to put trust back into the marketplace. With a Standard in place outlining the process in which the e-Mobility devices are tested, manufacturers could now deliver a certified and trusted product, giving retailers and consumers peace of mind regarding the product’s safety.

When Xplorlabs created the Portable Electrical Power module, key learnings from the Standard were incorporated into the module, including a virtual drop test that mimics real-world use of hoverboards.

This connection to real-world problems has become a key pillar of Xplorlabs. With Portable Electrical Power, students identify with the exploding hoverboard phenomenon, are then engaged by the science, then challenged to develop a solution. The Fire Forensics module takes students up close and personal with the science of fire and the role of fire investigation. They will have to use their fire science knowledge and solve the mystery of a where a fire started and how.  According to Kelly Keena, UL’s director of outreach and education, “the problem is the hook or the engaging part for students.”

Another safety issue involving batteries is the button cell battery which poses a safety risk when swallowed by children. On an x-ray button cell batteries look like coins and the standard of care is to let coins pass naturally. However, if it’s actually a lithium battery, severe problems can arise when one becomes lodged in the digestive tract or elsewhere in the body. A critical safety issue for science and engineering.

In the kick-off investigation for Portable Electrical Power, students answer the question, ‘Can we see the energy in a single button cell battery?’ The  Bologna Test, where the bologna acts like a child’s esophagus and the saline solution acts like saliva, students observe the energy contained in a button cell battery and what happens in a child’s throat when a battery is ingested and trapped. After seeing the scientific reasons why batteries are causing severe tissue burns, students then look at how engineers design solutions to this problem and discuss their own solutions. Ultimately, they take on the role of scientist and engineer as they move through the remaining classroom investigations.

   Ken Boyce of UL

Ken Boyce, principal engineer and director of Energy and Power Technologies at UL, was instrumental in convening leading engineers, scientists and medical doctors to address this safety issue. He served as the subject matter expert for UL

Xplorlabs and his expertise was critical in the development of the module. Ken believes the benefit of students being engaged with Xplorlabs is not only their increased knowledge of science and engineering solutions, but also their awareness of safety issues and their ability to be ambassadors for the issue. Ken notes, “The concept of building a population of young people who will go out and use STEM to protect our planet and its people is critical, I am proud that Xplorlabs is teaching these concepts.”

Teachers can extend the modules and make the connection from the classroom to the real-world in a few ways:

  • Have students be on the lookout for safety issues that are making the news. Discuss the real-world examples and brainstorm solutions.
  • Invite your local scientists, safety engineers or fire investigators to class (or via video chat) to discuss their job and how science and engineering play a role every day.
  • See here how teachers and the fire service are partnering in Cobb County, GA are making these connections with their students.
  • Talk about how behavior change can make the world safer and how science helps us understand it. For example, share the video Close Before you Doze to illustrate how fire science has helped us identify a simple behavior change that keeps people safer in the event of a home fire.
  • Share the history of hoverboards and lithium-ion batteries in class and have students investigate other public safety issues or risks that have been solved by science. For example, paper shredders are another safety issue that led to a change in design. When paper shredders first moved into homes, children were getting their fingers stuck in the blades. UL oversaw a rigorous test program to make sure the physical design wouldn’t allow those incidents to occur.