Battery on aircraft - fire hazard

Battery Alert! When Harmless Batteries Mutate into Acute Hazards

Esther Nestle
11.06.2019
2 pictures
4 minutes

Almost no-one takes off without batteries in their luggage. Gone are the days when we simply shoved a few clothes, a book and a toothbrush into our suitcases. Nowadays, we’re smart about getting on the road – and it’s the most natural thing in the world for us to pack our mobile phones, laptops and rechargeable batteries into our bags and onto aircraft. We can’t do anything nowadays without smart technology – and certainly not travel!

Fire risk 2.0

Smart, but flammable?

If things go sideways, electronic devices can catch fire – and can even explode. Flight experts and authorities have had the fire risks posed by smart devices on their radars for a long time – and with good reason:

LIBs: batteries with fiery tempers

LIBs, or lithium-ion batteries, have very short fuses. If handled improperly, they tend to overheat.

But how do smartphones and similar devices “just” catch fire – or even explode? Lithium-ion batteries pack a lot of energy into a very small space. This means that they have a very high energy density, significantly higher than, say, lead-acid or nickel-cadmium batteries – which makes LIBs perfect for use in laptops and similar devices.

Under normal circumstances, these batteries release their energy in a completely controlled manner, and their electrons flow as they are supposed to. But if this type of high-energy battery receives a violent blow, for example, gets crushed or is otherwise subjected to mechanical damage, the LIB quickly gets out of balance. Currents begin flowing unintentionally and uncontrollably. The battery overheats and catches fire. But that’s not all. Because lithium fire feeds on oxygen, it grows rapidly and quickly spirals out of control.

What should you do if a battery catches fire?

Under no circumstances try to extinguish it with water!!!

Water does not, unfortunately, extinguish battery fires. On the contrary, it causes them to explode. Water molecules split into oxygen and hydrogen, resulting in VERY dangerous gas explosions. The best way to fight a lithium fire is using extinguishing sand or an extinguishing blanket and high-heat gloves. Nowadays, flight crews are appropriately equipped and trained to handle battery fires.

What are security experts and airlines doing?

The globally influential United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has the issue high on its agenda. Despite many heated discussions, however, its leaders have made few major decisions. To date, the committee has not been able to bring itself to ban all electronic devices in checked baggage.

The point is:

Overheated laptops in passenger cabins can have nasty consequences – but at least they are usually quickly discovered, with fires being fought in the blink of an eye. The impact in the cargo hold, however, can be more dramatic. Tests conducted by security experts show that hold extinguishing systems do not always defeat particularly dangerous lithium fires.

As airlines continue to wait for compulsory procedures, each is handling the issue in its own way. Lithium-ion batteries are, for example, now prohibited in the cargo holds of US domestic flights, while Lufthansa allows batteries rated for up to 100 watt hours and powerpacks rated for up to 160 watt hours in checked baggage. Everything else, including spare batteries, must be in hand luggage.

What passengers should be aware of

We can reduce the risk of fire by:

by Esther Nestle

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