TV Investigation blows lithium ion dangers out into the open!
2 Investigates: Government tests show lithium batteries in flames
By Tom Vacar
Though lithium batteries are lightweight, hold a charge longer and deliver six times more energy than traditional lead batteries, the US Federal Aviation Administration banned the carrying of any commercial shipments of lithiums in the cargo holds of passenger aircrafts, because they can start fires.
“Safety is a major concern within the lithium ion battery industry,” said battery expert Elton Cairns, who is an Engineering Professor at UC Berkeley, and a senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, long specializing in battery technology.
Cairns says though he believes the overwhelming majority of lithiums are safe, they are far from fault free. “We’re still learning how to make lithium batteries safer,” he said.
Thirteen months ago, KTVU asked the U.S. Department of Energy to show us video of tests it had been conducting on lithium batteries. When it said no, KTVU used the Freedom of Information Act and obtained what the Energy Department did not want the public to see.
The tests make the batteries fail by doing what has made them fail in real operation – overcharging them, over heating them, draining them too quickly and damaging them.
One common failure was batteries spewing highly flammable and toxic gases. In another failure, the batteries catch fire. In yet another test, a build-up of pressure led to an explosion.
It gets even more dangerous when you have a cluster of lithiums that fail like a row of dominoes. “And that is a situation where it feeds on itself. The faster the reaction, the more heat is released. The more that gets released causes the reaction to go faster,” said Cairns.
That’s the small batteries that consumers can still bring on board. But what about big shipments, and what about lithiums to power up passenger planes?
For the last six years in the U.S., only cargo planes have been permitted to carry commercial shipments of lithiums. Even so, Investigators blamed lithiums, at least in part, for the destruction of three cargo planes since 2006 – two of which crashed.
All three were carrying large amounts of lithium batteries. Meanwhile, the current missing Malaysian airliner was carrying 2.5 tons of lithiums in its cargo hold. Many foreign air carriers have no restrictions.
Shortly after the first 787 battery failure early last year, the Federal Aviation Administration undertook a series of full scale tests to document the characteristics of large battery fires and how to suppress them on a real, but retired cargo jet.
The tests illustrate the potential for a fire to rapidly gain size and strength. In one case, toxic smoke kept thickening throughout the plane including the pilots’ flight deck.
Eventually, the smoke got so thick, it’s doubtful a pilot could see the instrument panel, let alone look out the window.
In another case, pressure released from the burning batteries did internal damage to the aircraft’s structure. In some cases, the tests were terminated because the fuselage got too hot – in excess of 1,700 degrees.
Many of the lessons learned have been and are being incorporated into aircraft systems design as well as how the batteries themselves are being packaged. “It’s a very, very small fraction of lithium ion batteries that fail,” said Cairns.
The world’s newest airliner, the 787, had an original design, according to Cairns, of its lithium batteries sitting right next to each other with no space between them for cooling.
The FAA approved a redesign, separating the batteries, enclosing all of them in a stainless steel box with venting so they cool with air. Cairns isn’t sure that air cooling is the best solution, “I think a much better design would be to have a liquid cooling system that is insensitive to altitude and can provide a much greater rate of heat removal so that if any one of the cells begins to overheat, for whatever reason, that overheating will not be transferred to adjacent cells.”
Four months ago, a Japan Airlines 787, with the approved fix, suffered a battery leak and smoke which temporarily grounded that plane. It is now flying again.
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