Leading the charge for child-safe batteries

It’s an extremely serious and widespread problem – children being injured as a result of inhaling or swallowing “button” batteries; around 3,500 cases are reported annually to poison control centres in the United States alone. But now, thanks to an innovative researcher from the School of Design, new solutions to the problem could help save the lives of babies and young children all over the world.


Button cell lithium batteries are the small, flat batteries that are commonly found in electronic devices such as toys and remote controllers. Because of their size and packaging, these batteries often end up in places (such as the floor) where they are unnoticed by adults, but within reach of young children. Attracted by the shiny surfaces of the batteries, babies and toddlers instinctively put them in their mouths. “Once a battery has been ingested by a child, it sets off a chemical reaction, causing severe internal burns that result in significant, and sometimes fatal, injuries,” explains Jeongbin Ok.  On reading about the problem, Mr Ok was motivated to combine his expertise in chemistry and industrial design to invent practical solutions to this real-world problem.


“Firstly, we needed to address the issue of packaging design, to ensure that access to packaged batteries was easy for adults, but impossible for young children,” he explains. “Then, because the ingestion of button batteries in children can go un-diagnosed for long periods of time – often, no-one sees the ingestion happening, and there are no specific medical symptoms to alert caregivers – we had to find a way to provide a clear indication that a child has swallowed a battery.”


After investigating a number of different options, including the use of vomiting and bittering agents, Mr Ok developed a novel solution which involves treating batteries with a saliva-activated colourant. Within seconds of the battery entering a child’s mouth, the mouth becomes stained with colour, enabling medical help to be sought immediately as Mr Ok explains: “Acting quickly to remove the battery is of paramount importance to prevent serious injury or death, especially now that larger, stronger batteries are increasing the risk of severe complications.”


To assess the viability of Mr Ok’s inventions, Viclink helped him to identify a suitable commercial partner, putting in place a joint development and licensing agreement with one of the world’s largest battery manufacturers.


“It was a natural fit because of the manufacturer’s deep commitment to making this popular product safer, and complements their active involvement with medical associations, government and safety authorities to address safety issues,” says Dr Anne Barnett, Viclink’s Senior Commercialisation Manager. “Solutions which could help mitigate the problem of injury from button cell battery ingestion were of significant interest to them.”