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What’s the biggest fear about Lithium battery fires?

Kent Faith - Wednesday, September 10, 2014

I am getting google alerts now almost hourly about Lithium battery fires. Fires that are in planes, trains and automobiles and sometimes in the pockets of teenagers.

So what are the chances of this happening in a commercial airplane? Well, the statistics show; between 1991 and 2014 there have been 144 battery-related incidents reported by the FAA- “smoke, fire, extreme heat or explosion”[1]

The FAA goes on to say that the risk is not “Extremely Improbabl[e]”.[2] So the pilot in me wants to know: WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

The simple explanation is in the FAA’s AC noted, “Catastrophic failure conditions must be extremely improbable”

I now understand by the FAA definition and since occurrences are documented from 1991-2014 that a lithium battery fire happens on airplanes and it can be catastrophic.

FAA, IATA, and other data lead Royal Aeronautical Society to conclude: …“the accident data reviewed shows a much greater rate of occurrence of catastrophic in-flight smoke/fire/fume events than the definition of “extremely improbable”, or once in a billion flights. In some rare cases, an in-flight fire can become a “catastrophic” event. There is a definite need for improved mitigations to reduce the likelihood and severity of such events.”[3]

What protection is there on an airplane?

The airlines exist to promote the safety and security of passengers. The FAA has the same mission: “…to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world.”[4]

However, industry, science and the 21st century play a part in safety as well. The Lithium battery is relatively new as are iPads, iPhones, readers and laptops. The carrying and use in the cabin is even newer. In fact the airlines now promote their use with charging stations and streaming the internet.

When certification was accomplished by the FAA of most commercial aircraft these devices weren’t around. So fire protection was deemed sufficient for the risk.

The fire protection required by certification of all US aircraft is Halon.[5] Halon is no longer manufactured and used primarily by the airline industry because of its ability to extinguish even a hidden fire. Great extinguishing product for some fires but dangerous to Humans (Halon won’t extinguish a lithium battery fire). This is what I found on the web:

Halon inhalation can affect the cardiovascular and nervous system and can cause death in humans and other mammals at HIGH CONCENTRATIONS. It also displaces breathable air within the compartment. In theory, a properly installed and calibrated system will include enough oxygen to support human life, but in practice it would be wise to immediately evacuate anyone who does not have self-contained breathing apparatus.[6]

The manufacturing of Halon has ended due to the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty designed to protect the ozone layer by phasing out the production of numerous substances that are responsible for ozone depletion.[7]

A real dilemma for airline safety!

FAA Approach.

The FAA does have a plan and protocol for the extinguishing in cabin Lithium fires[8] and it can be clearly found in SAFO 09013. The two (2) part process is as follows:

Utilize a Halon, Halon replacement or water extinguisher to extinguish the fire and prevent its spread to additional flammable materials.

(2) After extinguishing the fire, douse the device with water or other non-alcoholic liquids to cool the device and prevent additional battery cells from reaching thermal runaway.

So what constitutes a “non-alcoholic liquid”?

In AC 120-80 the FAA adds this:

In addition to the aircraft’s required emergency equipment, crewmembers should also consider those items that are not normally thought of as firefighting aids. For example, non-alcoholic beverages such as coffee, soda, juice, or water may be poured onto a fire. A carbonated beverage may be used as a fire extinguisher by shaking up the can or bottle, opening the top, and spraying the contents at the base of the fire.

Just last month the manager of the FAA’s Fire Safety Branch, Gus Sarkos said this: “The more testing we do, the more concerned we are about these dangers.”[9]

And ICAO’s top safety officer Nancy Graham, specifically cited “concerns with the risks all lithium batteries present…on both passenger and cargo aircraft.”[10]

Today a new Google alert:

Lithium-Ion Battery Market Expected to Quadruple Globally

Are we prepared?

[1] Source: FAA, 1991-2012, http//www.faa.gov/about/office_org/headquarters_offices/ash/ash_programs/hazmat/aircarrier_info/media/Battery_incident_chart.pdf

[2] FAA AC 25-109-1a relates to Certification Maintenance Requirements – it defines the severity of events and the frequency of the occurrence of those events

[3] Royal Aeronautical Society, “Smoke, Fire and Fumes in Transport Aircraft,” 2013, http://aerosociety.com/Assets/Docs/Publications/SpecialistPapers/SAFITA__2013.pdf

[4] http://www.faa.gov/about/mission/

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halon

[6] http://www.answers.com/Q/What_are_the_dangers_of_Halon_in_fire_extinguishers

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montreal_Protocol

[8] FAA SAFO 09013 and AC 120-80

[9] Alan Levin, Bloomberg News, Aug 11, 2014

[10] Andy Pasztor, WSJ, Sep 7, 2014