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Lithium-Ion Batteries Linked to Airplane Fires 244

Posted by timothy
from the mine-keep-not-exploding dept.
smellsofbikes writes "The National Safety Transportation Board thinks it's possible that lithium-ion batteries caused a fire that destroyed a United Parcel Service airplane on Feb 8, 2006. The FAA already bans non-rechargeable lithium batteries from air shipment because aircraft don't carry fire suppression equipment capable of extinguishing lithium fires. The interesting thing is: these batteries aren't being used or charged, they're just being shipped: spontaneous battery combustion. Is this something that happens in the back of computer stores, or just on airplanes?"
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Lithium-Ion Batteries Linked to Airplane Fires

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  • Environmental stress (Score:5, Informative)

    by morcheeba (260908) * on Monday July 17, 2006 @04:53PM (#15733620) Journal
    It's not just spontaneous, it's environmental stress. A cargo hold is a cold, low pressure, high vibration environment . This may be the first time a newly-made battery is exposed to these factors, causing infant mortality flaws in manufacture to become aparent. Even after the infant mortality portion of the bathtub curve [wikipedia.org], reliability calculations typically rate one hour of cargo flight time as worth 10-20 hours on the ground. That flight from china may be equal to 10 days on the ground.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 17, 2006 @04:54PM (#15733627)
    Flashlight geeks have been dealing with this issue for a while.

    http://www.candlepowerforums.com/vb/showthread.php ?t=78843 [candlepowerforums.com]

    http://www.candlepowerforums.com/vb/showthread.php ?t=124776 [candlepowerforums.com]

    There have been several documented "venting with flames" of primary CR123A batteries. Rechargeables seem to be a lot more stable, occasional Dell laptop conflagarations notwithstanding.
  • Re:squished? (Score:5, Informative)

    by treeves (963993) on Monday July 17, 2006 @04:59PM (#15733664) Homepage Journal
    That would be a plausible explanation if the battery contained elemental lithium. They don't. They contain compounds of Li.
  • Re:squished? (Score:3, Informative)

    by tomhudson (43916) <barbara...hudson@@@barbara-hudson...com> on Monday July 17, 2006 @05:03PM (#15733696) Journal

    The problem is that already-charged lithium batteries contain a lot of energy, and if they short out, they will heat up fast.

    A new, uncharged rechargeable battery, on the other hand, is basically a dead battery. Short it out and nothing happens.

    Here's something you can try at home if you're a total skeptic: charge up your cell-phone battery, remove it from your phone and drop it in your pocket along with some change or a set of keys, and go for a walk. You'll KNOW when the battery shorts ut.

  • Re:Too slow? (Score:5, Informative)

    by cat6509 (887285) on Monday July 17, 2006 @05:04PM (#15733701)
    It is the NTSB that researches things like this, not the FAA per se. They are very methodical and precise with their work. They are slow to publish thier findings, this doesn't mean they are slow to identify the cause, just very carefull that they have come to the correct conclusion. Check out the NTSB aircraft accident database, this contains detail over every aircraft accident reasearched by them for several decades ( 1962 ) http://www.ntsb.gov/ntsb/query.asp [ntsb.gov]
  • by deathcow (455995) * on Monday July 17, 2006 @05:05PM (#15733709)

    I've seen it with my own eyes. I wrote the embedded software (8051 C) for a robotic bone lengthener / deformity corrector in the early 90's, it was powered by Lithium batteries that ran the motors and provided 5V for all the electronics. On more than one occasion (during development) we had Lithium batteries just go up in fire and smoke, for no apparent reason. It caused us a lot of worry to say the least, especially since any bad and ready to blow cells were packed into packs with surrounding cells.. to add to the fire. This was 12 years ago, so I am sure Lithium batteries are better than ever, but it doesn't suprise me to hear about them going up in flames.
  • Re:UPS = Ooops (Score:4, Informative)

    by CheddarHead (811916) on Monday July 17, 2006 @05:08PM (#15733744)
    Back when I was in college there was a brief period where I payed my rent and got beer money by working at a UPS facility. I worked loading UPS semi trailers with packages. The packages would come off of a conveyor belt, and our job was to load the truck as fast as possible.

    To make a long story short, we were not particularly gentle with the packages. In fact if you saw the way the trucks were loaded, you'd be surprised at what good conditions your packages are in. I still use UPS, but I always make sure that things are packed very, very well.
  • lipo fires (Score:4, Informative)

    by heli_flyer (614850) on Monday July 17, 2006 @05:13PM (#15733781)
    Electric RC flyers have been dealing with this issue for a while.

    Here is an informational thread about lipo batteries:

    http://www.rcgroups.com/forums/showthread.php?t=20 9187 [rcgroups.com]
  • by schnikies79 (788746) on Monday July 17, 2006 @05:13PM (#15733783)
    The main cargo area on UPS jets has standard cabin pressure. The lower cargo areas on select planes are not pressurized.
  • by tlhIngan (30335) <slashdot.worf@net> on Monday July 17, 2006 @05:14PM (#15733792)
    One of the failure modes of a Li-Ion battery is what the industry calls "vent with flame", or what everyone else calls, a fire. (A very spectacular one, at that - not just ignition, but the fire actually shoots out like a jet).

    Li-Ion batteries are extremely volatile and sensitive, which is why good batteries have a variety of protective circuits on them (or can have) - e.g., physical distortion (detects if the battery balloons), over temperature (charging/discharge), over current, unsafe low voltage (if the battery voltage falls too low, you can't charge it safely), and many more. That's also why their charge regimen is so complex (charge at constant current to ~90% capacity, then constant voltage charge to 100%. Then stop all charging until capacity is around 90% again, then restart CV charge - this is why the first 80% can happen relatively quickly, while the last 20% can often take as long as it took to get to 80% in the first place) since they need charge controllers and "smart chips" to monitor the state of the battery.

    Usually these events happen when the battery is actually used, but there isn't anything to say that it can happen otherwise. Those protective circuits require power, and they get their power from the battery while outside the device. And since you cannot store Li-Ion batteries discharged very well, they are often charged at the factory, during assembly and final sale. A nice short somewhere along the line and battery will vent with flame.

    There's a reason why most LiIon batteries have hard to get at terminals or come with protective covers. It's not for convenience, but more for during storage/shipping, so the terminals don't get shorted.

    Oh yeah, those protective circuits are optional - not all batteries have every one (some may not need it or find a way to protect it in another way - battery distortion can be handled by having the battery having to fit in a slot - if it can't fit, well...). Third party ultra cheap batteries may have *no* protective circuits at all (hence those "Nokia Exploding Batteries").
  • by Cherita Chen (936355) on Monday July 17, 2006 @05:17PM (#15733807) Homepage
    Check out these photos here [klaudius.free.fr] of lithium polymer batteries (commonly used in r/c models) in action... SUPER FUN HAPPY BURN THE HOUSE DOWN TOYS!
  • by HaloZero (610207) <protodeka@gmai l . c om> on Monday July 17, 2006 @05:18PM (#15733813) Homepage
    * Water may be used to extinguish packaging fires if batteries have not ruptured; water is not an effective extinguishing agent for a battery fire.

    * For small fires involving the battery [extinguishing] media such as Lith-X or copper powder may be used, but should be applied with a long handled tool. Do not use CO2 or Halon directly on a battery fire as the exposed surface of the contained lithium may react with these materials.

    * For larger fires involving lithium batteries, copious amounts of water may be applied, from a safe distance, to control the fire and protect adjacent materials and facilities.


    Simply put, water won't do the trick. It may contain the fire (by dousing the flames / removing its heat from the equation), but it won't extinguish it. Also, dumping water onto a battery fire just causes a lot of steam. Depending on the size of fire and the amount of water (since the key term used above is copious), you could turn a sealed airplane into a pressure cooker in just a few minutes, and no one is going to be happy about that.
  • Re:squished? (Score:4, Informative)

    by tomhudson (43916) <barbara...hudson@@@barbara-hudson...com> on Monday July 17, 2006 @05:20PM (#15733819) Journal

    The article pointed out thes are non-rechargeable lithium batteries - the disposable type you put in cameras, etc. They're fully charged when manufactured, so there's no way to ship them in even a partially-discharged state. When a new one goes, either from design defect, poor quality control, or mishandling, it REALLY goes.

    Also, you CAN completely discharge a rechargeable lithium battery and then recharge it. (How do I know it was completely discharged? Stupid me put it in my pocket with change and keys - so you KNOW that it got shorted out at some point - but it was totally dead, so no harm done). The recharging circuitry isn't supposed to let you recharge a completely dead battery (the battery will get REALLY warm, for example), but I've done it. That particular cell phone battery is now 5 years old, been through well over its rated maximum charge/discharge cycles - 500, and still keeps a 50% or greater charge (though for a while it would keep hardly any charge at all).

  • lithium power (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 17, 2006 @05:25PM (#15733872)
    I have pretty extensive experience with lithium and lithium ion/polymer/prismatic(and otherwise)/LIFn cells)

    They are dangerous. Lithium polymers can create an extremely high temp fire if shorted, dunked in water, etc. Lithium ions can (and will) explode if shorted in water or otherwise. The case on it can't expand like the lithium polymers wrapping which allows it to burn instead of turn into a crappy grenade.

    Lithium cells (like the new 1.5v cells out for cameras and other digital technologies) don't have as high of a current capability as recharable lithiums, but offer extreme weight->low current capacity. They get hot very quickly and catch fire very fast. It is possible that the plastic wrap on the lithiums in question was damaged and shorted on a metal item unless it was dropped. As you see, the cells can be crushed which will cause a fire in very short order.

    And by the way, don't put out a battery fire with water or it will short other batteries out and compound the problem. What kinda moron posts that junk?

    Lithium technology is safe if treated right. I guarantee you the voltage matching or cutoff circuitry is what lead to the dell laptop issues, and that the lithium cells on the UPS flight were wet or damaged in some other way as to cause the problem. I would hate to see lithium batteries be shipped via HASMAT trucks, but unless we start hiring more people that can read english labels that say "do not wet, fragile" they may have to be...

    -JNY
  • by Carnildo (712617) on Monday July 17, 2006 @05:30PM (#15733902) Homepage Journal
    I googled it quickly and found this http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0UBT/is [findarticles.com] _29_18/ai_n6280927. Planes don't carry water??

    Not in the volumes needed to extinguish a burning battery:

    * Water may be used to extinguish packaging fires if batteries have not ruptured; water is not an effective extinguishing agent for a battery fire.

    As it says, water is not effective if the battery itself is burning.

    * For small fires involving the battery [extinguishing] media such as Lith-X or copper powder may be used, but should be applied with a long handled tool. Do not use CO2 or Halon directly on a battery fire as the exposed surface of the contained lithium may react with these materials.

    Airplane fire extinguishers are almost universally halon-based, as halons don't corrode aircraft components, and they work at low concentrations: you can do things like discharge an extingusher into a running engine, or put out a fire in the cockpit without suffocating the pilots.

    * For larger fires involving lithium batteries, copious amounts of water may be applied, from a safe distance, to control the fire and protect adjacent materials and facilities

    Here, "copious amounts of water" means the sort of water flow that a pumper truck attached to a hydrant can provide.
  • by dpaton.net (199423) on Monday July 17, 2006 @05:33PM (#15733924) Homepage Journal
    A majority of CR123s aren't designed for contsant discharge at a relatively high rate. They are marketed to the photo market, where there are pulses of high power and long periods of very low draw. They do function at higher draws, but with reduced lifespan. This is hidden deep in the spec sheets, where the pulsed current recovery and discharge profile math is. I'm not terribly surprised that people have problems with lithium primary cells (NOT Li-po, Li-Ion, or any of the rechargable Li chemistries) in use for high current loads like the high power miniature flashlights out there like the Pelican M6 [pelican.com] (the example cited in the second CandlePower link). The Xenon bulb version will suck the power out of a pair of CR123s in 1 hour. Calling the batteries 1300mAH (an average, according to Google), that means they're being loaded to about 1.3A each. That's a ~1C discharge rate. Most cells I found data sheets on didn't show a 1.3A discharge curve, instead showing a 1A curve or 1200mA pulse discharge measurement, using a 3s on / 7s off (30%) duty cycle. 10% can mean a lot in these cases. Odds are a lot of those cells are being used on the edge of or well past their design envelope. Beating up batteries like that can cause trouble, especially for cells that are fragile. Of course, not all are. The Energizer E2 photo lithium CR123 shows a capacity of 1.5AH and a 1000mA discharge life of 1.2 hours. It's probably the one used by Pelican to reach the rating of their flashlight, even if it looks like they did push the cells a little past their design limits.

    Lithium primary cells generally do not have construction compatible with fast discharge. Often it can be gotten away with if the discharge is under 0.6C or is of a pulsed nature. Continuous discharge will kill them tho, a flaming, explosive kill.

    Batteries have ever-increasing power densities, and deserve respect from designers. Just tossing 123s in is a BAD idea IMO. I was an engineer on a project where someone did just slap one in without consideration. When we put the test unit through its paces, blammo. Pulling 2A out of a 1.5A battery for 7 seconds is OK in NiCads and NiMH cells and even rechargable LiPoly prismatics if you know what you're doing. This was a dime store photo battery, and it went off like a small cannon after a few seconds.

    People don't think about the design envelope for batteries as much as they should any more. It's unfortunate.

    My US$0.02 as an engineer.
  • by Rifter13 (773076) on Monday July 17, 2006 @07:09PM (#15734458) Homepage
    Li-Poly batteries are used a lot in RC aircraft. Here is a link to a page about LiPo fires (with a link to some videos) Lipo Fire info [rcgroups.com].

    Lipos are used a lot in RC flying, but you have to be very careful with them. If they short, they will start to buldge a bit, and can catch fire. Also, LiPos can only be discharged so far, until they are useless (I believe under the 3.7 volt level). If you are interested about rechargable batteries, RC people are the ones to look at. (that includes NIMH, NICD, and LIPO)
  • by mmclure (26378) on Monday July 17, 2006 @07:10PM (#15734460) Homepage
    Yes, but "below 50% charge" actually means "85% of the maximum voltage." For Lithium-Polimer batteries, the maximum voltage is 4.2V and 3.0V is "completely discharged" (in fact dropping lower than 3.0V runs the risk of permanently damaging the battery and causing "vent with flames" the next time you charge it.) 3.8V is considered the ideal storage voltage in R/C circles.

    R/C circles probably have the largest percentage of failed Lithium Polymer batteries, because they are discharged at pretty high rates, and the protective circuits on most consumer lithium batteries are removed. Most failures are caused by the following:

      - Overcharging due to the use of a bad charger or using the wrong settings on a Lithium-Polymer-capable charger.
      - One cell of a multicell pack overcharging due to being at a higher initial voltage than the other cells in the pack. This is being mitigated with the use of "balancers" which connect to each cell and maintain equal voltages across the pack.
      - Physical damage due to crashes.
      - Shorting out the battery.
      - Allowing the voltage of a cell to drop below 3.0V.

    Many of these have been ameliorated due to technological improvements in the last two years - for example the aircraft-side electronics now cut off the motor at a point where the battery voltage is still safe, chargers have been much improved, and battery packs now come with special connections to allow checking and adjusting voltages on a cell-by-cell basis.

    R/C enthusiasts tend to treat Lithium-Polymer batteries with quite a bit of respect as far as storage and charging is concerned. Many will set up a cinderblock on a concrete floor, place the battery in one of the holes of the cinderblock (the holes in the block are set vertically) and cover the top of the hole with a plastic bag full of sand. In case of a "vent with flame", the heat will melt the plastic allowing the sand to cover the battery and put out the fire. Compared to a couple of years ago, however, the incidence of Lithium-Polymer fires has greatly decreased even as use of Lithium-Polymer batteries has increased.

    This forum thread [rcgroups.com] has a lot of information about dangers and safe handling guidelines for Lithium-Polymer batteries.
  • by kerecsen (807268) on Monday July 17, 2006 @08:06PM (#15734739)
    Actually, I would be much more worried about the hard disk. Most HDDs have a design spec limit of 10000 feet of elevation, because the head may not maintain desired clearance above the platter at higher altitudes. So check your hard drive specs before you boot that puppy up...
  • Re:squished? (Score:4, Informative)

    by v1 (525388) on Tuesday July 18, 2006 @07:49AM (#15735542) Homepage Journal
    So called "deep cycling" a liio battery (or nimh actually) is not good on a battery. I don't know the exact nature of the damage, (whether its an irreversable chemical change, drying out of the electrolyte, or possible plate damage) but I've read in many places with my electronics work that deep cyclng liio and nimh batteries damages their ability to take a charge. Such batteries that are completely discharged for a period of time tend to not accept a new charge at all, rendering them bricked. I have ran into this problem more than once myself. If you have any small products that use liio or nimh batteries and you have let them sit in a clothset for several months you will find that they are fully discharged and very often they will refuse to charge at all. (nicd do not appear to have this problem, or at least not to the same extent) This is why ALL liio/nimh batteries you will find their documentation says they ship with a "partitial charge" to avoid an extended wait in the warehouse resulting in a DOA.

    I doubt the liio batteries are catching fire due to taking on water. They WILL however explode if placed in a fire, as all rechargeable batteries have a warning label on them to not dispose of in fire and that is why. If the pack is badly designed and somehow several of the cells are allowed to short, such as if the recharge control chip shorts out, this can lead to the batteries dead shorting. (this is only an issue if the cells are charged, which as I mentioned is pretty much assured) Any rechargeable battery (liio, nimh, or nicd) will get extremely hot when dead shorted while charged, as all the energy of its charge is rapidly released. (most laptop batteries are around 50 watts normal discharge, which can translate easily into 200-300 watt discharges when shorted) Liio carries the additional penalty of being more prone to explosion when superheated, and this can lead to them exploding if shorted.

    Though in this article it does not sound like explosion was an issue, more fire. This probably means a pack shorted out (defective, failed) and overheated, catching its battery case on fire due to heat. The burning case eventually helped raise the battery temperature enough to lead to the ignition of the battery electrolyte. (the lithium itself) Once a pallet of liio batteries starts on fire, fire suppression really doesn't matter any more. When the fire department has to deal with things like that they don't try to put it out - they just get everything flammable away from it and cover it with water to suppress the heat until it burns itself out. Once the lithium goes from merely hot to actually burning, you cannot smother it with water, it will rip the oxygen right off the water molicules to continue to burn. So the plane's fire suppression system would have actually fed such a fire. Foam (or something solid) is about the only thing that has a chance of suppressing a lithium fire, and even that is not very effective due to the intense heat of burning lithium vaporizing the foam. (it takes a lot of foam)

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