The consumer environment loves the hottest new technology, but consumers don’t associate their latest gadgets with fires burning as hot as 500°C (932°F), in a dangerous battery dynamic known as thermal runaway. In a thermal runaway scenario, when one battery cell fails at a high heat level, that can in turn cause neighboring cells to fail, creating a thermal chain-reaction.
Aviation courts and embraces new technology. It has to, in order to keep up with the lifestyle demands of today’s connected passenger. However, inherent dangers associated with the composition of the lithium-ion battery (Li-ion) cells used to power portable electronic devices (PEDs) produced by the major manufacturers, as well as less well-regulated copycat products, threaten to put PEDs in direct opposition with cabin safety objectives.
As the Royal Aeronautical Society stated in its 2013 report on fire safety, entitled Smoke, Fire and Fumes in Transport Aircraft: “One of the largest trends in the growth of inflight fire is due to the transportation of lithium batteries. From March 1991 to October 2012, the FAA office of Security and Hazardous Materials Safety recorded 132 cases of aviation incidents involving smoke, fire, extreme heat or explosion involving batteries and battery powered devices (Federal Aviation Administration, 2012). Lithium batteries were the majority of battery types in the incidents.”
Battery types: know your enemy
There are two types of lithium batteries: the rechargeable Li-ion kind as usually found in PEDs such as cell phones, tablets and digital cameras; and non-rechargeable lithium batteries (Li-metal), which are similar to Li-ion, but use a different electrode material – metallic lithium.
However, as the Royal Aeronautical Society report continues, “All lithium batteries present a potential fire hazard. These batteries are carried on aeroplanes as cargo, within passenger baggage, and by passengers directly. Like some other batteries, lithium batteries are capable of delivering sufficient energy to start an inflight fire. Lithium batteries present a greater risk of an inflight fire than some other battery types because they are also unable to contain their own energy in the event of a catastrophic failure.”
The International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations (IFALPA) has also investigated this issue, and in a safety bulletin on the matter, states: “Since 1991, batteries or battery-powered devices have been involved in more than 100 recorded incidents of smoke, fire or explosion in air transportation. In order to be safely transported, batteries are required to undergo testing prescribed by the United Nations (UN) Subcommittee of Experts on the Transport of Dangerous Goods. Additionally, batteries must be designed to prevent short circuit and overcharging, and must be free from damage. Due to the expensive nature of these requirements, there is a substantial and growing supply of counterfeit batteries, particularly in Asia. These batteries have often not undergone the rigorous design and testing requirements prescribed by regulation and have a higher likelihood of overheating, catching fire or exploding.”
How to handle a problem
We asked Geoff Leach, founder of the Dangerous Goods Office, a consultancy specializing in aviation dangerous goods training, for his opinion. He explained, “From a passenger perspective, there are requirements that spare batteries must be in the cabin so if anything does go wrong it will happen in close proximity to trained staff. There is also a risk in the hold [when passengers place spare batteries in their luggage].”
Prior to founding his consultancy, Leach worked at the UK CAA for 32 years, 23 of which were directly in the Dangerous Goods Office. He was also a panel member and chairman of the ICAO Dangerous Goods Panel, focused on addressing these risks, and also contributed to IATA’s Cabin Operations Safety Conference specifically to address the risks and required actions when Li-ion batteries fail on board an aircraft.
“The UK,” he says, “is working with the FAA to produce media material for flight and cabin crew that reflects the ICAO emergency response guidance for cabin crew, something that is desperately needed by airlines as there is no comprehensive training material for dealing with an incident in the cabin involving a portable electronic device. The video will go a long way to addressing that.”
Mark Rogers, chairman of the Dangerous Goods Committee at IFALPA, director of Dangerous Goods Programs at the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), and an active member of numerous industry working groups addressing these concerns, explains that when Li-ion batteries overheat due to damage, mishandling or defect, the heat can quickly escalate to the runaway level. This can also occur when batteries are charging, which is a special concern as many aircraft cabins now have many seats equipped with power outlets.
Rogers explains that incidents of fire can be extinguished simply by cooling the batteries down again, for example by pouring water on them. In incidents where this has occurred, cabin personnel have reacted intuitively by dousing the fire with water and indeed it has worked.
However, even France’s air safety investigation body, the Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses (BEA), in its report on an incident on board an Air France flight in 2010, where a battery ignited after being crushed by the seat adjustment mechanism after a passenger’s cellular phone fell through cracks in the seat, emphasizes the possibility that Li-ion batteries may re-ignite.
As BEA said in its report: “Throwing water on a lithium battery fire can, however, revive the flames and make it more difficult to extinguish because of the reduction of lithium in water, which leads to the release of hydrogen, which is highly inflammable.”
This confusion as to the handling of incidents is why both Rogers and Leach feel that significant education initiatives are required, and why IATA included this topic in its Cabin Operations Safety Conference.
Aggravating the problems that approved batteries may encounter when they fail, is the gray market for ‘copy cat’ batteries which both aviation controls personnel and technology companies have failed to clearly define so far. “What nobody can answer is how many non-compliant counterfeit batteries are produced,” Leach tells us. “Nobody really knows.”
The way forward
How can aviation plan a corrective action to a problem the scope of which is undefined, the risks of which are unclear, and the solutions to which are in the hands of others?
If the device manufacturers and their aftermarket suppliers do not make the scope of the gray market battery problem clear, then there is no way to know the level of exposure consumers face with these dangerous batteries, much less how many of them may end up aboard aircraft.
There are alternative battery compositions in the development phase that would significantly reduce the flammability risks of lithium batteries, but if the tech companies themselves don’t select such batteries to power their devices, then the risks remain the same.
As Rogers and Leach both emphasize, the principal action the aviation industry can take is one of education, not only for passengers but also for crew. There is still insufficient industry awareness of the problem. Cargo risks, however, are a separate matter; one for which more effective regulations could be developed and, according to Rogers, are underway.
But the cabin environment is at odds with itself, with airlines balancing the desire to provide power for passengers’ PEDs and the risks of liberalizing the use of those same devices. EASA acknowledges the risk, and a spokesperson told us, “It is a fact that through the spread of personal electronic devices like cell phones, tablets, MP3 players, batteries, chargers, etc, hazards can be introduced inadvertently in the cabin. Although this does not significantly affect the safety of the aviation system, it is nonetheless something that cabin crew should always be aware of.”
EASA asserts that it does not significantly affect the safety of the aviation system because, for the most part, when these fires have occurred, crew have detected them in time and been able to put them out.
Rogers confirms this, and tells us that the FAA’s Fire Safety Protection Working Group is also active in reviewing the risks associated with PED batteries on board aircraft. However, as Rogers also tells us, there is attention paid to these matters by the industry at large, when an incident occurs, but with the passing of time the focus remains only with those specifically dedicated to these task groups.
Everyone we spoke to agrees that an extensive educational campaign, both within the industry and with passengers, can overcome that challenge.
Leach indicates that the industry is also examining practical ways to lessen the exposure to loose batteries in luggage. “We’ve been exploring the feasibility of detecting lithium-ion batteries in cargo using existing x-ray technology,” he says. “It’s in its infancy. We’ve worked with manufacturers to put batteries through the x-ray machine to see whether the algorithms can be adjusted to detect lithium-ion batteries. If we can find the non-compliant undeclared batteries via x-ray, it would be a major step forward.”
Leach leaves us with some sensible advice on what we can do as passengers to lessen the risks on board: “There are three steps, which if they were adhered to, would go a long way to preventing the kind of incidents we have seen in baggage: only buy lithium batteries from legitimate sources; carry spare batteries in the cabin; and protect batteries against short circuit by either leaving the batteries in their original packaging or by using insulation tape across the terminals.”
We have been fortunate – so far – that battery fires in the cabin have been be containable, and the growth in containment devices can help. We cannot say the same of battery fires that have started in the cargo hold. We can only hope that technology does not wait until a deadly fire takes place in the cabin to reconsider the use of materials that are this dangerous in everyday electronics. Until technology companies take action, however, aviation can only prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
Illustrations by Russell Brocklehurst