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Lithium-Ion Battery Fires and Containment Bags in Air Travel Safety

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In today’s tech-savvy world, lithium-ion batteries power our essential devices, from smartphones to laptops. These rechargeable batteries have become an integral part of our daily lives, but it’s crucial to be aware of their potential risks, especially when traveling by air. In this article, we will explore the science behind lithium-ion battery fires, the FAA’s recommended procedures for dealing with such fires, and the role of fire containment bags in ensuring passenger and crew safety.

The Science Behind Lithium-Ion Battery Fires

Lithium-ion batteries consist of multiple cells connected in series to provide the required voltage. Devices like iPhones and iPads typically have two cells, while laptop batteries can contain six or more. While these batteries are generally safe, they can occasionally overheat, leading to a phenomenon known as “thermal runaway.” During thermal runaway, a battery can release its contents in the form of flames, heavy smoke, or unburned hydrocarbons. In severe cases, the battery can even explode or become a flying hazard. This chain reaction is triggered when one cell in the battery pack enters thermal runaway, generating enough heat to cause adjacent cells to follow suit. The resulting fire can rekindle repeatedly as each cell ruptures and releases its contents.

FAA Recommended Procedures for Lithium-Type Battery Fires

When dealing with a fire caused by a lithium-type battery-powered personal electronic device, the FAA recommends following a two-phase procedure: extinguishing the fire and cooling the remaining cells to prevent thermal runaway.

Phase 1: Extinguishing the Fire

In the event of a fire, quick and decisive action is crucial. The focus should be on extinguishing the fire using a halon, halon replacement, or water extinguisher to prevent its spread to other flammable materials. The type of extinguisher available should be used without delay, rather than wasting time searching for a specific class of fire extinguisher. If your aircraft is unpressurized, it should descend to a lower altitude to minimize exposure to halogenated agents and prevent hypoxia.

Pilots should also consider using non-flammable liquids, such as water, coffee, soda, juice, or other non-alcoholic substances, to cool the device and prevent additional battery cells from reaching thermal runaway. These unconventional firefighting methods can be surprisingly effective and should not be overlooked.

Phase 2: Cooling the Device

After extinguishing the fire, it’s essential to cool the device using water or non-alcoholic liquids to prevent re-ignition and the propagation of the fire to adjacent batteries. Adequate cooling is necessary to halt the spread of the fire to other cells in a battery pack.

FAA Concerns Regarding Fire Containment Bags

While fire containment bags may seem like a promising safety measure, the FAA does not fully endorse their use, primarily when these bags suggest moving a burning or hot device. The FAA recommends that all crewmembers refrain from moving any device that is burning, smoking, or overheating until it has been thoroughly cooled. Such devices are inherently unstable and unpredictable, and any movement could trigger an unforeseeable reaction. Instead, cooling the device with water or other non-flammable aqueous substances for at least 15 minutes is advised. Once cooled, the device can be placed in a receptacle, including a containment bag, filled with water or non-flammable liquid.

FAA’s Lack of Testing Standards and Certification for Fire Containment Bags

Manufacturers often claim that their fire containment products are “FAA certified” or have been “successfully tested by the FAA.” However, the FAA does not have established testing standards for these products, nor does it have a certification program for them. Therefore, pilots and crewmembers should exercise caution and not rely solely on these products without following the recommended FAA procedures.

Using Fire Extinguishers: Best Practices

Fire extinguishers are an essential tool for dealing with in-flight fires, and it’s crucial to use them correctly. Handheld fire extinguishers are designed to be used in an upright position, allowing the extinguishing agent to flow properly. Using an extinguisher on its side or upside down can limit its firefighting capacity by obstructing the flow of the extinguishing agent. So, always use fire extinguishers in the upright position.

When it comes to halon fire extinguishers, while they are generally safe for passengers and crew, prolonged exposure to “high levels” of halon in confined spaces can lead to dizziness, impaired coordination, and reduced mental sharpness. It’s important to prioritize swift fire extinguishing over potential health risks when facing an in-flight fire.

Being Prepared for Lithium-Ion Battery Fires

Lithium-ion battery fires can be highly dangerous due to their propensity for thermal runaway. Being prepared for such emergencies is vital, whether you’re a professional crewmember or a general aviation pilot. It’s essential to understand the science behind these fires and follow the FAA’s recommended procedures. Keep in mind that cooling the device with water and adhering to established safety protocols are key to handling these situations effectively.

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