Video: How to fight laptop computer lithium ion battery fires

In recent years, we have heard about a number fires and subsequent safety recalls on cell phone and laptop batteries most notably of Dell and Apple, but also of Toshiba, Hewlett Packard. Sony, Lenovo/IBM, Hitachi, Fujitsu, Sharp, and Nokia.

On February 7, 2006, about 23:59 eastern standard time (06:59Z), a United Parcel Service
Company (UPS) McDonnell Douglas DC-8-71F, registration N748UP, performing flight 1307, from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, landed at its destination, Philadelphia International Airport (PHL), Pennsylvania, after a cargo smoke indication in the cockpit. The captain, first officer, and flight engineer evacuated the airplane after landing. The flight crew sustained minor injuries, but the airplane and most of the cargo were destroyed by fire after landing. The probable cause of the fire was suspected to be a load of laptop computers and lithium ion batteries. Download the NTSB report here.

In fighting battery fires, it is key for everyone to recognise the following :

  • The typical laptop battery pack contains six or nine Lithium ion cells.
  • The critical temperature of the cell is about 177 degrees celsius (350 degrees Fahrenheit).
  • Fires and explosion occur in one cell and then spread to the other cells with the heat of the first causing thermal runaway reactions in the adjacent cells.
  • It is important to immediately extinguish the fire using either a water or Halon 1211 fire extinguisher, do not use powder or foam extinguishers
  • It is critical to cool the battery pack down using water, or any non-alcoholic, non-flammable liquid — soft drinks, soda, juices will suffice which will slow down and eventually stop the thermal runaway reaction.
  • Do not use ice as this will smother the battery and trap the heat. This will continue to fuel the runaway thermal reaction and cause secondary fires and explosions. This is also why foam and powder extinguishers are a strict no-no.
  • Do not attempt to pick up and move a smoking or burning device or remove the battery pack from the device!!! There are chances of a secondary explosion and serious bodily injury may result.

The US Federal Aviation Administration released a training video along with a Safety Alert for Operators (SAFO) about fighting laptop battery fires. This FAA training video might help.

You can download the video from the FAA website. Click on the “Training Videos” link on the lower right of the page. I forewarn that the site is painfully slow.

Hat tip to Simon Hradecky at Aviation Herald for the idea.

About Devesh Agarwal

A electronics and automotive product management, marketing and branding expert, he was awarded a silver medal at the Lockheed Martin innovation competition 2010. He is ranked 6th on Mashable's list of aviation pros on Twitter and in addition to Bangalore Aviation, he has contributed to leading publications like Aviation Week, Conde Nast Traveller India, The Economic Times, and The Mint (a Wall Street Journal content partner). He remains a frequent flier and shares the good, the bad, and the ugly about the Indian aviation industry without fear or favour.

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