Will lithium batteries be next thing banned from commercial flights?


Worried about a possible terrorist strike, American Airlines flight attendants confiscated 58 cell phones, lithium-ion batteries and charging devices from a passenger on a June 23 New York flight to Buenos Aires.

In April, Tokyo police and fire officials rushed to a baggage area at Narita airport after a curling iron powered by a lithium-ion battery caused a passenger’s checked bag to burst into flames as it was being shuttled from an American Airlines jet to a connecting flight.

Lithium-ion batteries – the rechargeable energy source for cell phones, laptop computers and an increasing number of other portable electronic devices – are becoming a growing concern for airlines in passenger cabins and cargo holds. Non-rechargeable lithium metal batteries like those in cameras and flashlights are a concern, too.

When a lithium battery short-circuits or overheats, it can catch fire or explode. The fire it causes may not be as easy to extinguish as a normal combustion fire.

Federal Aviation Administration information shows that from March 20, 1991, through Aug. 3, 2010, batteries and battery-powered devices were involved in 113 incidents with “smoke, fire, extreme heat or explosion” on passenger and cargo planes. The data are for lithium and non-lithium batteries and are not a complete list of such incidents, the agency says.

In January, the Transportation Department proposed stricter rules for companies that ship lithium batteries in cargo holds. “The frequency of incidents, combined with the difficulty in extinguishing lithium-battery fires, warrants taking strong action,” Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, said of the Transportation Department’s proposal.

Lithium-battery experts, security analysts and flight attendants wonder, though, if stricter rules are also needed in airline passenger cabins to prevent fires or worse: a possible attempt by a terrorist to bring down a plane by rigging a large number of batteries together to start a fire.

Right now, there’s no limit to how many small lithium-ion batteries a passenger can carry aboard a flight.
Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman Kristin Lee says the agency has studied the matter. She says the TSA, which oversees air security, determined that lithium-ion batteries for cell phones, laptops and cameras “cannot be used as an explosive and are not a security threat in personal carry-on quantities.”

But some scientists who have studied the batteries raise doubts about the safety of the ones passengers carry on board flights in their electronic devices, even those as small as those used to power cell phones.

Jian Xie, a mechanical engineering professor at Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis, says portable electronic devices are “pretty safe” for consumers. But, he says, they could be rigged together for a bomb.

That’s what worried the attendants aboard the American Airlines flight to Buenos Aires in June. The passenger, who spent more than 30 minutes in a lavatory and acted suspiciously earlier in the flight, began removing batteries from cell phones and had many batteries, cell phones and charging devices on a tray table. Flight attendants reported his actions to the captain and were told to confiscate the devices.

Xie, who is doing lithium-ion battery research for the military, says it’s “scary” that a passenger with 50 or so electronic devices, including numerous lithium-ion batteries for cell phones and laptops, boarded an aircraft. “I would be very uncomfortable on that flight,” he says.

Amy Prieto, a Colorado State University chemistry professor who also is a lithium-battery expert, says several batteries could start fires that would be difficult to put out. But, she says, even 50 batteries rigged together “wouldn’t be like a bomb that would take down a plane.”

Dan Abraham, a materials scientist at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, says even a single cell phone battery could start a fire. “A smart terrorist can start fires with these things,” he says. “Any energy-storage device packs a lot of energy in a small space and can be used for good or evil.”

Former FAA security director Billie Vincent says TSA screeners need to use common sense and call a supervisor when they see a passenger with many batteries and electronic devices.

“Why is someone carrying so many batteries?” Vincent says. “If there’s a need for special packaging for batteries in the cargo hold, why are there not special precautions in the passenger cabin?”

Dinkar Mokadam of the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents more than 50,000 flight attendants at 22 airlines, says a rule should be established to limit the number of devices a passenger carries on board. Such regulations aren’t implemented “unless something catastrophic occurs,” he says.

Despite the June incident, American Airlines hasn’t taken a public position on the quantity of batteries passengers can bring on board, says spokesman Tim Smith. However, Smith says, the crew on the Buenos Aires flight “did exactly as they are trained to do.” They observed suspicious behavior and acted on it by confiscating the passenger’s phones and batteries, he says. The devices were turned over to “Argentinean authorities,” who determined the passenger wasn’t a security concern but intended to sell them in Argentina.

Carrying lithium-ion batteries on an aircraft is “mostly” a hazardous materials issue for the FAA, says Adam Comis, press secretary for the House Committee on Homeland Security.

The FAA, which regulates flight safety, classifies lithium batteries as hazardous materials because they “present chemical and electrical hazards” and are a fire risk.

There have been several recalls of lithium-ion batteries used in laptops and other consumer products “that could spontaneously overheat and cause a fire,” FAA spokeswoman Sasha Johnson says.

But the FAA and its parent agency, the Transportation Department, do not limit the number of lithium-ion batteries for laptops, cell phones and some other portable electronic devices that passengers carry aboard. There is a limit for other lithium batteries with higher lithium content.

Since April 1999 – when a shipment of lithium batteries caught fire after being taken out of a passenger plane’s cargo hold at Los Angeles International Airport – the FAA has received reports of 40 fires involving lithium batteries and devices powered by them, Johnson says.