Lithium-ion batteries

The advent of the smartphone and tablet devices in the last decade has led to a sharp rise in the number of portable electronic devices that passengers are carrying on planes.

Most personal electronic devices use a rechargeable lithium-ion battery.  A fault or damage to a lithium-ion battery increases the risk that the battery will short circuit and catch fire.  As a lithium-ion battery ages, the risk of a fault with the battery increases.  Therefore, the risk of the battery short-circuiting and catching fire also increases.

The increase in the number of personal electronic devices being carried by passengers increase the risk of a lithium-ion battery fire on a plane.

While lithium-ion battery fires are still relatively rare, they are increasing.  The Federal Aviation Administration in the United States documents 225 incidents of smouldering, fire or explosion of lithium-ion batteries since 1991.

A total of 81 of these incidents took place in 2017 and 2018.  That represents more than a third of the total lithium-ion battery incidents in relation to smouldering, fire or explosion that the FAA documents have taken place since 1991.

A fire in the confined space of an aircraft cabin is potentially catastrophic.


The use of a Halon Class D fire extinguisher is generally considered the safest and most effective way to extinguish a lithium-ion battery fire.

Water can then be used to cool the device and to stop the fire spreading.

Concerns have been expressed that high concentrations of Halon in a confined space like an aircraft cabin could have adverse health impacts for passengers and staff on the plane.  However, this risk is generally outweighed by the toxic smoke of a lithium-ion battery fire and toxic smoke that may be given off by other material in the cabin that catches on fire.

More recently, it has been reported that some airlines have issued cabin staff with protective gloves and air proof bags in a bid to control a lithium-ion battery fire.  The idea is that a device that is overheating or has caught fire can be handled with a protective glove and placed into an airtight bag where the fire is deprived of oxygen.

Attempting to bring a lithium-ion battery fire under control in this way carries two distinct risks.  The first is that the device may explode, showering the person handling the device with molten shrapnel.  The second is that the protective bag itself may potentially catch fire.  The use of a halon fire extinguisher is generally preferred to this method and is the most effective way to bring a lithium-ion battery fire under control.

© 2019 Ben Symons

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