There’s growing concern about devices catching fire at 30,000 feet. Here’s why.
HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - From cellphones to laptops to Teslas, rechargeable lithium batteries are in a wide range of today’s products.
But in recent years, the batteries have become cause for concern ― so much so that the U.S. government has been urging a ban on large personal electronic devices ― such as laptops ― from checked luggage due to the risk of a catastrophic fire.
The potential for danger was evident Tuesday at Honolulu’s airport when an overheated external battery charger inside carry-on luggage started smoking and emitting a foul odor.
The incident triggered false reports of an active shooter, causing “pandemonium," the evacuation of Terminal 2 for security reasons and hours-long flight delays.
Manufacturers prefer lithium ion batteries because they pack more energy into a small space.
But they can self-ignite if they have a manufacturing flaw, are damaged, exposed to excessive heat, overcharged or packed too closely together.
And the fires can burn extremely hot ― up to around 1,100 degrees. That’s alarmingly close to the melting point of the aluminum used in the construction of an aircraft.
So how exactly do they ignite? Geek.com explains that a defective or improperly handled battery can overheat, causing the cells to break open and result in a chain reaction of other cells rupturing.
This domino effect is called “thermal runaway,” and it’s the cause of most battery explosions and the less dramatic, battery swelling.
The fear of lithium ion batteries causing a catastrophic fire in the air is based on actual events.
From 2006 to 2017, three cargo jets were destroyed and four pilots killed by in-flight fires that investigators say were either started by batteries or made more severe by their proximity.
In 2016, airlines banned passengers from bringing a Samsung Galaxy Note 7 on commercial flights because of its battery malfunction, which led to the device catching fire and in some cases exploding.
That same year, a toy known as a “hoverboard” became the hottest news stories the holiday season, and not just because they were selling quickly.
According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, there were dozens of incidents in the United States in which the toy’s lithium ion batteries caught fire, destroying bedrooms and even entire homes.
In July 2016, the commission said they had at least 60 reports of hoverboard fires, totaling over $2 million in property damage.
A few years ago, the FAA conducted tests involving a fully-charged laptop packed in a suitcase. A heater was placed against the laptop’s battery to force it into “thermal runaway.”
In one test, an 8-ounce aerosol can of dry shampoo — which is permitted in checked baggage — was strapped to the laptop.
There was a fire almost immediately and it grew rapidly. The aerosol can exploded within 40 seconds.
The test showed that because of the rapid progression of the fire, Halon gas fire suppressant systems used in airline cargo compartments would be unable to put out the fire before there was an explosion.
The explosion might not be strong enough to structurally damage the plane, but it could damage the cargo compartment and allow the Halon to escape, the agency said in a NBC News report.
Then there would be nothing to prevent the fire from spreading.
Other tests of laptop batteries packed with consumer goods that are permitted in checked baggage ― like nail polish remover, hand sanitizer and rubbing alcohol ― also resulted in large fires.
Despite the government pushing for a ban on products like laptops in checked luggage, most consumer personal electronic devices containing batteries are still allowed in carry-on and checked baggage.
The FAA says that includes cell phones, smart phones, PDAs, electronic games, tablets, laptop computers, cameras, camcorders, watches, calculators.
This covers typical dry cell batteries and lithium metal and lithium ion batteries for consumer electronics (AA, AAA, C, D, button cell, camera batteries, laptop batteries).
The FAA advises that devices containing lithium metal or lithium ion batteries (laptops, smartphones, tablets) should be carried in carry-on baggage when possible.
The agency says when these devices must be carried in checked baggage, they should be turned completely off, protected from accidental activation, and packed so they are protected from damage.
Spare (uninstalled) lithium metal and lithium ion batteries are always prohibited in checked baggage and must be placed in carry-on.
When a carry-on bag is checked at the gate or at the plane, any spare lithium batteries must be removed from the bag and kept with the passenger in the aircraft cabin.
Lithium ion batteries power as many as 95 percent of rechargeable electronic devices, so they are not going anywhere anytime soon.
That's why new regulations and safety products are procedures are more likely to come before any sort of manufacturing changes.
One of those products is called the The HOT-STOP "L" bag.
It’s made up of multiple durable fabrics with a felt inner core that has a melting point of 3,200 degrees.
The core is sandwiched between two outer layers that have a 2,080-degree melting point, and are proven to absorb energy and fire while eliminating the escape of smoke, sparks, and flames.
The product looks like a pizza delivery bag, but airlines are buying into it.
After a credit card reader overheated on an Alaska Airlines flight, the airline joined Virgin America in putting the containment bags on all planes.
The Consumer Technology Association has also laid out a list of tips to help keep people safe from exploding batteries:
- Keep all button batteries out of the sight and reach of children.
- Follow warnings and manufacturers’ instructions for batteries and battery-operated products; use only the correct type and size of battery indicated.
- Don’t modify non-replaceable batteries or use batteries not specified for your model.
- Non-rechargeable batteries should not be charged.
- When changing batteries, check the contacts of both the battery and the battery-operated product for cleanliness; make sure you insert the batteries correctly.
- When batteries are exhausted, remove and safely dispose of them according to local regulations.
- Replace all batteries in battery-operated products at the same time, and use only batteries of the same type and manufacture.
- It is important that you do not damage batteries by heating, attempt to crush, puncture or dismantle them.
- Batteries should not be kept in pockets or purses where they may come into contact with keys, coins or other metal objects.
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