FAA raises more safety fears over lithium batteries in the skies

August 12, 2014 // By Paul Buckley
New research by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has sparked fears that lithium batteries can explode and burn even more violently than previously thought.  The test results raising questions about lithium battery use and shipment on aircraft.

The FAA tests were conducted because many airlines are replacing paper charts with laptops and tablet computers and the regulator wanted to see what would happen if one of their rechargeable lithium-ion battery cells ignited. In one test, the cockpit filled with smoke thick enough to obscure instruments and limit vision out of the window for about five minutes.

The findings, posted on the FAA’s website, raise an even bigger issue beyond laptops as makers of the rechargeable cells can ship the products in bulk in the cargo areas of passenger aircraft. One test found the batteries may blow up, which might render aircraft fire-suppression systems ineffective.

“That’s a result we haven’t seen before,” Mark Rogers, director of the Air Line Pilots Association’s dangerous goods programme, said in an interview. “It’s certainly very sobering because that condition could happen on aircraft today.”

Officials from international regulatory agencies, airlines, unions and battery manufacturers are scheduled to meet on 9th September in Cologne, Germany, to address the new research and determine whether additional restrictions are needed.

In September, 2010 a United Parcel Service Inc. (UPS) cargo plane with 81,000 lithium batteries caught fire and crashed in Dubai.  Another UPS aircraft just made it to Philadelphia in 2006, after a fire erupted in its cargo area.

Both UPS and FedEx Corp. are installing advanced fire-protection systems on their planes to combat battery-fed fires.

There are two major categories of lithium batteries, rechargeable and non-rechargeable, and each type burns differently.  The new FAA research identified several new hazards in both category of battery.

In one test, a single D-size lithium non-rechargeable cell was heated in an airline shipping container. Instead of burning, it exploded with enough force to dislodge the top of the container and released significant smoke.

An ICAO meeting summary from earlier this year revealed tests where a load of 4,800 non-rechargeable batteries in a mothballed airliner was ignited. After the test