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Lithium-Ion Batteries Linked to Airplane Fires 244

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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  • squished? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by P3NIS_CLEAVER ( 860022 ) on Monday July 17, 2006 @04:51PM (#15733598) Journal
    is squishing a lithium ion battery enough to make it catch fire?
  • Re:squished? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by jabber ( 13196 ) on Monday July 17, 2006 @04:53PM (#15733618) Homepage
    My thought would be depressurization or freezing.
  • by LordPhantom ( 763327 ) on Monday July 17, 2006 @04:54PM (#15733631)
    ...can these be modified by someone with nasty goals in such a manner that they might actually bring down an airplane? Disturbing thought if true....
  • UPS = Ooops (Score:5, Interesting)

    by the eric conspiracy ( 20178 ) on Monday July 17, 2006 @04:55PM (#15733637)

    Given how some of my UPS packages arrive looking like they were dragged to my house behind the truck, I would say that it is pretty likely that UPS is doing things to the batteries that my computer store doesn't.

  • Pressure? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by reality-bytes ( 119275 ) on Monday July 17, 2006 @04:56PM (#15733643) Homepage
    TFA doesn't say whether the one that caught fire in the hand luggage was after landing or not but the rest seem to be post-flight.

    Now, when you're on a commercial flight cruising along at 33,000ft, you may only be pressurised to 9,000ft and this, of course, includes your hand luggage.

    Is it possible that the depressurisation to 9,000ft alt and the repressurisation on landing resultant expansion and compression cycle of the lithium batteries and causing them to somehow fail?
  • Re:squished? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ResidntGeek ( 772730 ) on Monday July 17, 2006 @04:57PM (#15733646) Journal
    Nope. Lithium is an alkali metal. Alkali metals ignite on contact with water. The more active ones (Cesium most of all) violently explode. I imagine a small puncture in a battery could let in enough atmospheric water vapor to ignite a battery.
  • Yes, and every time I forget to stash my Swiss army knife in my luggage... or anything else stupid that gets confiscated, I'm rolling my eyes while I think of the two lithium ion batteries I'm bringing abord and how nastily they'd react with water.

    False sense of security? Hell yes.

  • Re:squished? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by johnny cashed ( 590023 ) on Monday July 17, 2006 @05:07PM (#15733739) Homepage
    Excellent point, but Li-Ion batteries are damaged if discharged below a certain point. So even discharged (in normal usage) Li-Ion batteries still have some energy in them.
  • Re:squished? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Directrix1 ( 157787 ) on Monday July 17, 2006 @05:20PM (#15733822)
    Let me just say that a Lithium-Ion battery can do some pretty nasty stuff. I had one out of my camera (a small Nikon digital) sitting on my bedside table next to my camera. One night I dropped it on the floor. I don't know what that did to it, but it started to bulge and become untouchably hot. I put it inside a pyrex container on the kitchen floor for the rest of the night in case it went poof. By morning it was fully discharged, but still had the bulge in it. I thought that thing was going to explode for sure, but luckily it didn't.
  • It may not be UPS (Score:3, Interesting)

    by mnmn ( 145599 ) on Monday July 17, 2006 @05:22PM (#15733846) Homepage
    I've heard of the strangest things blamed for airplane crashes. The fact is that some pretty smart people are put on the investigation of a crash, paid handsomely and given a deadline to produce an answer. Their jobs might depend on it. As the investigation progresses, theres always a 'most likely cause' that changes. When the deadline arrives, the most likely cause of the day becomes the answer.

    Some things only happen on airplane crashes.
  • Re:UPS = Ooops (Score:4, Interesting)

    by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <> on Monday July 17, 2006 @05:41PM (#15733991) Homepage Journal

    And for those who are wondering what this guy means, what he means is that the back of the truck gets loaded, with boxes stacked. Then the front of the truck gets loaded, by throwing boxes over the top of the boxes right in the back of the truck.

    One of my buddies used to work for UPS in Santa Cruz, CA. They had a chute that the packages came down, about ten feet long, and crashed onto the conveyor belt, from which point they threw them at the trucks. The chute had a big nasty bolt sticking down in the top of it, and occasionally large packages would get stuck on the bolt, gouging big holes in 'em. Someone would have to climb up the shaft, and unclog it.

  • Re:squished? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by s13g3 ( 110658 ) on Monday July 17, 2006 @05:53PM (#15734078) Journal
    I had something very similiar happen to me as well, though it was not the battery for my nikon (long discharged and no problems), but rather the battery for my Audiovox 6600 PocketPC. I had cancelled the service for which the phone was branded and purchased a different a different device to use for the phone purpose. While out one night and without a charger, the phone died, and I didn't charge it for a day. The next day, upon trying to remove it from the metal case/shell, I found it wedged tight. When I finally managed to remove the thing, I discovered a bulge in the plastic on the back of the battery, and on removing the battery, the foil casing on the underside swelled out, making the battery nearly twice it's size. I, too, dropped the battery into a pyrex container with a lid, and then that into a ceramic jar (I have an 50's era college chemistry set that came in very handy there... The s/o finally quit complaining for me to throw it out that night ^.^).
  • by smellsofbikes ( 890263 ) on Monday July 17, 2006 @06:00PM (#15734119) Journal
    One of the reasons I submitted this story is that I just bought a house that's at roughly 3500 meters (11,000 feet) elevation. UPS is shipping jillions of batteries, and obviously this isn't THAT common, but I still wonder about me taking up my laptop, and my friends taking up theirs. I wonder even more about flying up there in a Cessna -- not much higher altitude, but where's the knee of the safe/explode curve? (Is it a curve? or is it linear with altitude? or logarithmic, given that's how pressure drops? I'd expect it'd drop off with temperature, but if that's true, temperature drops somewhat faster than air pressure, so why are these happening at all?)
    With all that said, it's unsettling that a battery has *anything* going on in it when it's just sitting there in a brown paper box. Do Li-ion batteries have vents, like old lead-acid batteries? Can they evolve gas? (If so, what happens to their chemistry afterwards? it's not like they can recapture hydrogen offgassed: do they lose efficiency over time from this?)
    I know much less about batteries than I thought I did.
  • Totally Possible... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by THESuperShawn ( 764971 ) on Monday July 17, 2006 @06:03PM (#15734132)
    Just look at any R/C Forum or wbe site (or battery university) for horror stories about these batteries. I use them, but as soon as I see any bulging or swelling of a pack I get rid of it. I personally know a guy who lost his entire garage (and part of his house) from a fire during recharging (you should never leave them un-attended).

    They are great batteries that are light with lots of power, but they are quite finicky. I always charge as slow as possible and use a temp probe to shut everything down if it gets too hot.

    All that being said, I wonder how they could ignite if they are not in a charge or discharge (besides normal dishcharge as they sit unused) while in a cargo hold. I would think (no, I did not RTFA but hey this is Slashdot) they would need to be mutilated or highly disturbed in some way to catch fire.
  • Re:squished? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by dattaway ( 3088 ) on Monday July 17, 2006 @06:20PM (#15734212) Homepage Journal
    That would be a plausible explanation if the battery contained elemental lithium. They don't. They contain compounds of Li.

    I've taken apart a few lithium coin batteries. They have a soft metalic square of what I believe lithium on one of the plates. The metal is soft, can be easily cut and oxidizes from its shiny appearance to a dull grey in seconds. It can be easily ignited into a very bright light which seems brighter than the sun. Also, it can be dropped into a cup of water and it skeeters around like a little motorboat. Seems like pure lithium if I ever saw it!

    The other lithium batteries seem to be some kind of oxide roll which gets very hot with exposure to air. Haven't been able to do pyrotechnic experiments with these yet.
  • by The Nordic Beast ( 975740 ) on Monday July 17, 2006 @06:23PM (#15734222)
    I know I've seen it written here before, but there's an old chemistry saw that certainly rings true.

    "The are two types of chemists: Those who have never worked with Lithium, and those who are scared to death of it."
  • Laptops on a Plane! (Score:1, Interesting)

    by darkshadow ( 102598 ) on Monday July 17, 2006 @06:28PM (#15734245)
    Coming this summer!
  • by Macgrrl ( 762836 ) on Monday July 17, 2006 @09:58PM (#15735128)

    Back around 1992, I used to work for a Kodak dealer who sold the Kodak DSC200 series digital cameras. They were a Nikon 35mm camera body with a digital film back and Li based rechargable battery pack.

    My boss was on a client site setting up to run a demo, these cameras cost AU$30k each, it was sitting on a counter waiting to be hooked up when it burst into flames.

    While I wasn't present for the actual fire, I did see the melted unit afterward when packing it to be sent back to Rochester for tests.

    This has been a *known* issue for a very long time.

  • by Angst Badger ( 8636 ) on Monday July 17, 2006 @10:34PM (#15735274)
    I can't speak to lithium batteries, but I can tell you that NiMH rechargeables are pretty sensitive to moderately high temperatures. I've never cooked one by putting it under excessive load, but I lit several before I learned the trick of how to solder the solder-tab variety. I had one blow once when I was applying heat-shrink tubing to a series of them and kept the heat gun still a little too long.

    Now, as I said, I don't know much about lithium batteries, but batteries in general use chemical processes to store energy. Transfer that energy faster than the usual chemistry will allow (or physically stress them by knocking them around), and you shouldn't be too surprised if the energy is released through a more expedient means -- like combustion.

    I'm a little surprised we haven't seen more of this. The more energy we insist on packing into smaller and smaller batteries, the more inherently dangerous they become. Combine that with a low-margin market like laptop PCs where there is tremendous pressure to cut corners at every possible point, and you end up with yet another reason not to keep that laptop on your lap.

"Tell the truth and run." -- Yugoslav proverb