Li-ion Battery Fires On Airplanes Happen Once Every 8 Days!

li-ion battery.jpgOn Tuesday, March 20th, 2018, a fire broke out in the cargo hold of a Delta flight from Utah to Montana. It was immediately put out, and no one was hurt.

How did the fire start? Was it a terrorist or arsonist attack? Nope. A Li-ion (lithium ion) battery in a passenger's toiletry bag spontaneously combusted and, whoosh, fire. The scary part is that this is now so common that once the fire was put out... the plane took off like it was supposed to. Let me say that again, the plane still transported people to Montana after it was put out.  

A Li-ion battery fire is such a common occurrence for the airlines now that there is roughly one every eight days.

In an emailed statement, Delta said: 

"We are proud of the quick work of our ground crew who recognized and helped extinguish a bag containing a lithium-ion battery that began overheating inside the cargo hold during the loading process... The situation underscores the importance of removing lithium-ion batteries from checked or gate-checked luggage." 

In 2015 hoverboards were banned from going on a plane due to the instability of their batteries and in 2016 after a Samsung battery caught on fire, cell phones were briefly banned. Delta didn't disclose exactly which battery on which specific device started the fire, but practically everything uses Li-ion batteries now because they're cheap and efficient.

18650 battery size.jpg
 (A 18650 cylindrical battery is close in size to an AA battery)

The cost to manufacture Li-ion in the 18650 cylindrical sized form was over $10 in 1994. That was just to manufacture a single battery and once you factor in profits and third-party retailers they became expensive fast. Not to mention it only had a capacity of 1,100mAh. As the capacity increased, the cost actually decreased, so in 2001 you could make a 1,900mAh battery that was the same size for around $3 dollars. Today you can make a 18650 cylindrical battery for less than a buck that has high energy-dense cells that can provide around 3,000mAh of power which is about the same capacity that the battery in the iPhone 7 plus could deliver. 

Another advantage to using a Li-ion battery is it's very low maintenance. Unlike other batteries, Li-ion has no memory and doesn't need to be fully discharged to keep it running strong. 

It's powerful and relatively cheap, but the burning danger is real. What no one seems to mention however is that once one burns it's very hard to put out. Halon gas doesn't do anything to put out the fire because it's a chemical reaction that causes it to burn and starving the fire of oxygen does very little to suppress it.  chemical reactions that give off tremendous heat, and Halon does little to reduce the temperature as the chemical reaction of the battery is so hot that the battery can continually reignite and continue to start other fires or set off other Li-ion cells.  

richard hammond rimac on fire.jpg
(The Rimac Concept One Richard Hammond crashed on fire)

Last summer The Grand Tour's Richard Hammond crashed a one million dollar Rimac Concept One electric supercar and that electric car caught on fire... and burned for five days. Now granted it has way more Li-ion batteries on board to generate 1000kW and provide the car with a 0-60mph in 2.5 seconds, but what if someone is traveling with a case of camera batteries and one goes off? I doubt it will matter then whether the fire is in the cabin or the bulkhead but -- 

This is what the FAA recommends to help prevent airline fires:

  • Don't put loose Li-ion batteries in checked luggage
    • the electrical terminals should be taped over to prevent short-circuiting
  • Carry all devices with Li-ion batteries in your carryon

If there is a fire, get out of the way and let the airline staff handle it and if you have water or non-flammable liquid you can pour it on the fire to try and cool the cells down... or just drive wherever you're going from now.