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Gulp. After UPS Crash, FAA Focusing on Lithium Battery Safety

October 12, 2010 at 8:35 AM | by | Comments (0)

Back in September, a UPS plane caught fire and crashed in Dubai, tragically killing two American pilots. The FAA has spent the last month investigating and, while they're not certain of anything, they're pointing a suspicious finger at the cargo of lithium batteries that the airplane was carrying in its cargo hold. In response, the safety organization is suggesting that airlines move future lithium battery packages to the area reserved for so-called Class C cargo, which is safer and more fire resistant. They're also proposing more stringent regulations for customers to identify shipments of the batteries.

Apparently lithium-ion and lithium-metal batteries are vulnerable to something called "thermal runaway." Once they heat up past a certain point they can release their energy, heating up more, which causes them to release more energy, until something explodes. If there are a lot of batteries in the same place and even just one explodes, the resulting fire can heat up the rest of the batteries past their own tipping points. That scenario plays out about how you'd expect, which is what the FAA suspects may happened on the UPS flight.

Unfortunately the extra safety precautions in Class C cargo compartments, which include fire-suppression agents, can only help contain lithium-ion battery blazes. They don't work for lithium metal batteries. And none of that deals with other places where lithium batteries are found in airplanes—say, in passenger laptops or digital cameras—that the FAA may begin to scrutinize.

Now nobody is talking about that yet, in the context of this flight or in any other context. But there have been periods, like the one in 2006, when certain airlines banned Dell and Apple batteries. And now that the FAA has turned their attention to the general area, we're not going to lie to you: we're a little bit nervous. This is an organization that has has a lot of very stupid regulations—a lot—and even when they're justified they sometimes lean a little too far on the side of caution.

We're in no position to evaluate whether they should or will reevaluate the safety of laptop batteries, but we're hoping they shouldn't and won't. Fingers crossed.

[Photo: Cliff / Wiki Commons]

Related Stories:
· U.S. Airlines Get Lithium Battery Warning After Crash [Bloomberg]
· Airline Safety [Jaunted]
· Accidents [Jaunted]

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