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Batteries can pose fire risk to planes

posted by: Jeffrey Wolf , Web Producer created: 3/6/2007 7:47:50 PM
Last updated: 3/6/2007 10:25:48 PM




Lithium batteries can pose fire risk to planes. 9NEWS at 10 p.m. 3/06/07




WASHINGTON "” A rash of fires on planes has spurred the government to plan new restrictions on how airline passengers may carry lithium batteries used to power laptop computers and cell phones.


The Department of Transportation, which already bars bulk shipments of some lithium batteries on passenger planes, expects to propose more restrictions later this year, said Bob Richard of the DOT's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

While the agency has no immediate plans to ban the batteries from carry-on luggage, he said, the risks of batteries in airplane cabins are being studied. Restrictions on carrying the batteries in checked items are possible, Richard said.

"We recognize that the American public wants to be able to carry their batteries and electronic equipment aboard aircraft, but we have to weigh the safety issues," he said. "Any fire aboard an aircraft is unacceptable."

Fire safety officials, airline pilots and consumer groups are pushing for new rules on the batteries. At least nine fires involving lithium batteries have happened on airplanes or in cargo destined for planes since 2005, according to federal safety records reviewed by USA TODAY. None of the fires caused serious injuries.

Until new rules are in place, Richard said, his agency and the Federal Aviation Administration are asking companies that make and ship the batteries to take voluntary steps to ease fire risks. The agencies also will launch a safety awareness campaign for passengers.

Lithium batteries come in two types: lithium metal, which are single-use, and lithium-ion, which can be recharged. Both store energy that generates intense heat during a short circuit. A short can occur if metal touches both terminals or if internal seals fail.

Some low-cost or counterfeit batteries lack safeguards against short circuits, and manufacturing defects have rendered such protections useless in others. In the last year, more than 4 million lithium batteries have been recalled for such problems.

Battery industry representatives acknowledge that new cargo restrictions may be needed. They also have agreed to set voluntary standards on packaging and labeling shipments. But they see no need to bar laptops or other devices on planes.

"Bringing these onto an aircraft doesn't present any additional danger, provided you take care of your batteries," said George Kerchner, head of the Portable Rechargeable Battery Association.

Bulk shipments of lithium metal batteries were banned on passenger flights in 2004, in part because fires in those batteries are especially hard to put out. But the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest pilots union, wants cargo flights included in the ban, too.

The National Association of State Fire Marshals says bulk transport of lithium-ion batteries also should be restricted, particularly on passenger flights. But Maine State Fire Marshal John Dean, president of the association, said the question of whether to ban the rechargeable batteries in carry-on items needs more study.

A battery fire in a carry-on bag would be more easily detected and controlled by crew, Dean said. And, given the popularity of laptops and cell phones, banning them in carry-ons would be difficult.

Regulators "are caught in the middle," Dean said. "But if you think about being on a passenger plane and one of these catches fire "” even if the crew can control it, that's a bad situation with all the smoke."

Plane is bad place for bad battery

Smoke began wafting from a passenger's laptop about 15 minutes before a United Airlines jet was to depart from Los Angeles last September.

Passengers on a Lufthansa jet about to leave Chicago in May noticed smoke coming from an overhead bin in first class.

Last November, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent in Los Angeles pulled some cell phone batteries out of a cargo flight from China for inspection. One of the batteries burst into flames on a desk, spewing fire, sparks and smoke.

In each incident, documented in a list kept by the Federal Aviation Administration, fires erupted in lithium batteries. No planes crashed, and injuries were minor, but the fires are prompting a new look at safety standards for the batteries and whether they should be allowed on flights.

According to government and industry officials, the world's insatiable demand for more power is clashing with safety needs on aircraft.

"It is a critical safety issue," said Bernard Loeb, a former chief aviation accident investigator at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). "Any event that involves the potential for fire on an airplane is very serious."

Two major crashes in recent years "” ValuJet Flight 592 in 1996 and SwissAir Flight 111 in 1998 "” were caused by fires. Neither of those fires involved lithium batteries, however.

Lithium batteries have revolutionized electronics. Tiny cell phones equipped with cameras or music players would not be possible without the wafer-size lithium-ion rechargeable battery that powers them. Sophisticated medical devices depend on long-lived lithium metal batteries.

"Any device that you've bought in the past five years that makes it possible to work on the road, that's powered by lithium-ion," says George Kerchner, executive director of the Portable Rechargeable Battery Association.

The growing energy stored in the small batteries also creates a hazard. If the batteries short-circuit, they can produce intense heat, and most of the batteries contain flammable chemicals.

Reputable manufacturers submit to testing and safety standards set by groups such as the non-profit Underwriters Laboratories. These standards require that batteries contain built-in protections against overheating and fire, said John Drengenberg, consumer affairs manager at Underwriters Laboratories. The safety standards, however, are not required by law, and some manufacturers simply ignore them, according to Drengenberg and Kerchner.

Responding to fire incidents, the testing group expects to issue tougher standards for lithium-ion batteries this spring, Drengenberg said.

The potential for lithium batteries to ignite was first raised as a safety issue in 1999, when fire broke out in Los Angeles in a load of 120,000 lithium batteries that had just arrived aboard a Northwest Airlines flight from Japan.

Northwest employees doused the batteries with a fire hose, but each time they thought they had extinguished the fire, it flared up again, the NTSB said.

"The safety board has a long-standing concern about the risks associated with fires on aircraft, especially fires involving hazardous materials," said Debbie Hersman, an NTSB board member. Hersman chaired a hearing last year on a fire that destroyed a UPS jet in Philadelphia. Investigators have not identified the cause of the fire but found charred laptops near where the fire erupted.

Batteries are not covered under the United Nations rules governing hazardous shipments around the world. Unlike other chemicals, which must be specially packaged and labeled, batteries have no such requirements. The U.N. is considering bringing batteries under hazardous-goods rules, but the proposed change would not take effect until 2009.

The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which petitioned the U.N. to make the change, barred bulk shipments of lithium metal batteries on passenger flights in 2004.

The number of fire incidents involving lithium batteries on planes or in cargo and baggage destined for planes is relatively small: 15 documented cases since 2000 out of about 75 million flights during that period.

Battery industry officials say some incidents may be due to unsafe counterfeit batteries that aren't built with safety mechanisms. "A properly built and properly packaged battery carries very little risk or no risk at all," Kerchner said.


http://www.9news.com/money/article.aspx?storyid=65925

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Posts: 2567 | Location: USA | Registered: Sun April 07 2002Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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Batteries can pose fire risk to planes



By Peter Eisler and Alan Levin, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON "” A rash of fires on planes has spurred the government to plan new restrictions on how airline passengers may carry lithium batteries used to power laptop computers and cellphones.
The Department of Transportation, which already bars bulk shipments of some lithium batteries on passenger planes, expects to propose more restrictions later this year, said Bob Richard of the DOT's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

While the agency has no immediate plans to ban the batteries from carry-on luggage, he said, the risks of batteries in airplane cabins are being studied. Restrictions on carrying the batteries in checked items are possible, Richard said.

"We recognize that the American public wants to be able to carry their batteries and electronic equipment aboard aircraft, but we have to weigh the safety issues," he said. "Any fire aboard an aircraft is unacceptable."

Fire safety officials, airline pilots and consumer groups are pushing for new rules on the batteries. At least nine fires involving lithium batteries have happened on airplanes or in cargo destined for planes since 2005, according to federal safety records reviewed by USA TODAY. None of the fires caused serious injuries.

Until new rules are in place, Richard said, his agency and the Federal Aviation Administration are asking companies that make and ship the batteries to take voluntary steps to ease fire risks. The agencies also will launch a safety awareness campaign for passengers.


Lithium batteries come in two types: lithium metal, which are single-use, and lithium-ion, which can be recharged. Both store energy that generates intense heat during a short circuit. A short can occur if metal touches both terminals or if internal seals fail.

Some low-cost or counterfeit batteries lack safeguards against short circuits, and manufacturing defects have rendered such protections useless in others. In the last year, more than 4 million lithium batteries have been recalled for such problems.

Battery industry representatives acknowledge that new cargo restrictions may be needed. They also have agreed to set voluntary standards on packaging and labeling shipments. But they see no need to bar laptops or other devices on planes.

"Bringing these onto an aircraft doesn't present any additional danger, provided you take care of your batteries," said George Kerchner, head of the Portable Rechargeable Battery Association.

Bulk shipments of lithium metal batteries were banned on passenger flights in 2004, in part because fires in those batteries are especially hard to put out. But the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest pilots union, wants cargo flights included in the ban, too.

The National Association of State Fire Marshals says bulk transport of lithium-ion batteries also should be restricted, particularly on passenger flights. But Maine State Fire Marshal John Dean, president of the association, said the question of whether to ban the rechargeable batteries in carry-on items needs more study.

A battery fire in a carry-on bag would be more easily detected and controlled by crew, Dean said. And, given the popularity of laptops and cellphones, banning them in carry-ons would be difficult.

Regulators "are caught in the middle," Dean said. "But if you think about being on a passenger plane and one of these catches fire "” even if the crew can control it, that's a bad situation with all the smoke."

Plane is bad place for bad battery

Smoke began wafting from a passenger's laptop about 15 minutes before a United Airlines jet was to depart from Los Angeles last September.

Passengers on a Lufthansa jet about to leave Chicago in May noticed smoke coming from an overhead bin in first class.

Last November, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent in Los Angeles pulled some cellphone batteries out of a cargo flight from China for inspection. One of the batteries burst into flames on a desk, spewing fire, sparks and smoke.

In each incident, documented in a list kept by the Federal Aviation Administration, fires erupted in lithium batteries. No planes crashed, and injuries were minor, but the fires are prompting a new look at safety standards for the batteries and whether they should be allowed on flights.

According to government and industry officials, the world's insatiable demand for more power is clashing with safety needs on aircraft.

"It is a critical safety issue," said Bernard Loeb, a former chief aviation accident investigator at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). "Any event that involves the potential for fire on an airplane is very serious."

Two major crashes in recent years "” ValuJet Flight 592 in 1996 and SwissAir Flight 111 in 1998 "” were caused by fires. Neither of those fires involved lithium batteries, however.

Lithium batteries have revolutionized electronics. Tiny cellphones equipped with cameras or music players would not be possible without the wafer-size lithium-ion rechargeable battery that powers them. Sophisticated medical devices depend on long-lived lithium metal batteries.

"Any device that you've bought in the past five years that makes it possible to work on the road, that's powered by lithium-ion," says George Kerchner, executive director of the Portable Rechargeable Battery Association.

The growing energy stored in the small batteries also creates a hazard. If the batteries short-circuit, they can produce intense heat, and most of the batteries contain flammable chemicals.

Reputable manufacturers submit to testing and safety standards set by groups such as the non-profit Underwriters Laboratories. These standards require that batteries contain built-in protections against overheating and fire, said John Drengenberg, consumer affairs manager at Underwriters Laboratories. The safety standards, however, are not required by law, and some manufacturers simply ignore them, according to Drengenberg and Kerchner.

Responding to fire incidents, the testing group expects to issue tougher standards for lithium-ion batteries this spring, Drengenberg said.

The potential for lithium batteries to ignite was first raised as a safety issue in 1999, when fire broke out in Los Angeles in a load of 120,000 lithium batteries that had just arrived aboard a Northwest Airlines flight from Japan.

Northwest employees doused the batteries with a fire hose, but each time they thought they had extinguished the fire, it flared up again, the NTSB said.

"The safety board has a long-standing concern about the risks associated with fires on aircraft, especially fires involving hazardous materials," said Debbie Hersman, an NTSB board member. Hersman chaired a hearing last year on a fire that destroyed a UPS jet in Philadelphia. Investigators have not identified the cause of the fire but found charred laptops near where the fire erupted.

Batteries are not covered under the United Nations rules governing hazardous shipments around the world. Unlike other chemicals, which must be specially packaged and labeled, batteries have no such requirements. The U.N. is considering bringing batteries under hazardous-goods rules, but the proposed change would not take effect until 2009.

The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which petitioned the U.N. to make the change, barred bulk shipments of lithium metal batteries on passenger flights in 2004.

The number of fire incidents involving lithium batteries on planes or in cargo and baggage destined for planes is relatively small: 15 documented cases since 2000 out of about 75 million flights during that period.

Battery industry officials say some incidents may be due to unsafe counterfeit batteries that aren't built with safety mechanisms. "A properly built and properly packaged battery carries very little risk or no risk at all," Kerchner said.



http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/techpolicy/2007-03-05...-planes_N.htm?csp=34
 
Posts: 2567 | Location: USA | Registered: Sun April 07 2002Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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Posts: 142 | Location: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada | Registered: Mon April 08 2002Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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CD, Thanks for the link. Obviously, these batteries sound like a big problem.
 
Posts: 2567 | Location: USA | Registered: Sun April 07 2002Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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