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Kakao data centre fire linked to lithium-ion batteries

Written by Fri 28 Oct 2022

Image of a data centre engine room

Last week, a fire in a South Korean data centre knocked out online services, including social media giant Kakao, for an extended period. The incident was said to have been caused by a lithium-ion battery stored in the basement of the facility.

Kakao is among the most popular messaging, banking, and streaming providers in the country, causing widespread panic when services were blocked after the fire.

While services have been restored, the repercussions of the data centre fire are still being felt. The incident not only prevented regular transactions and operations for individuals and businesses, it also resulted in government scrutiny and the resignation of one of Kakao’s co-chief executive officers.

Yang Hyung-seo, Vice President of Kakao, explained the disruption caused by the incident: “We weren’t prepared enough for a crash of an entire server system from a fire.”

The investigation has not been concluded, but should it be proven that the fire was in fact caused by a defective lithium-ion battery, it could have a negative impact on the data centre industry worldwide, as the batteries are more space efficient.

“There is some difficulty, as it is the first time in the history of IT in which 32,000 servers were shut down,” added Yang Hyung-seo.

Read more: Kakao data centre fire increases government scrutiny

The state of lithium-ion batteries in data centres

The possibility that lithium-ion batteries might catch on fire is a known problem. As noted in a recent article, lithium-ion batteries are inherently flammable, and these fires spread quickly and are difficult to extinguish. The top reasons that lithium-ion batteries catch fire include:

  • Manufacturing defects
  • Design flaws
  • Abnormal / improper charge
  • Charger issues
  • Low-quality components

Even with this risk, however, the popularity of lithium-ion batteries has grown, from industrial uses to electric vehicles, and in the data centre.

As data centres focus on lessening environmental impact, they have begun testing alternatives to traditional diesel backup generators. Increasingly, diesel generators are being augmented or replaced by lithium-ion battery systems. According to Frost & Sullivan, lithium-ion batteries accounted for 15% of backup data centre power in 2020, but that will increase to 38.5% by 2025.

Additionally, lithium-ion batteries are playing a large part in schemes in which data centres return stored power to the local grid when the backup system is not in use. Backup systems are inactive most of the time, used only when the regular power supply is interrupted. Some data centre companies use this as an opportunity to regularly transfer stored energy from lithium-ion batteries to the local grid to alleviate data center energy drains on local communities.

The high-profile nature of the fire at the data centre, owned and operated by SK C&C, poses additional problems for the South Korean economy, as the country is one of the largest producers of lithium-ion batteries in the world.

In response to increased concern over the safety of linthuim-ion batteries, Korean companies are accelerating the introduction of ‘all solid-state’ batteries for industrial applications. These were originally expected to be introduced in 2027, but researchers are attempting to speed the introduction, as solid-state batteries have significant benefits over lithium-ion batteries: namely, they are more stable and less likely to start a fire. Solid state batteries are also lighter than lithium-ion, and charge faster.

Written by Fri 28 Oct 2022

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