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 vision out 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 airplanes. One test found the batteries may blow up, which might render airplane 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 program, 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 Sept. 9 in Cologne, Germany, to address the new research and determine whether additional restrictions are needed.
In September 3, 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 was suspended to prevent damage to the aircraft, the battery load exploded with such force that it blew the cockpit door off its hinges.
Both types of batteries behave unpredictably when overheated or ignited, according to the latest research. Changes in manufacturing can create “substantially different” reactions, according to the FAA tests.
In February 2014 the UK’s specialist aviation safety regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) warned that the huge growth in people carrying lithium batteries on aircraft poses a growing fire risk. The UK’s Royal Aeronautical Society has also highlighted the risks from batteries bought from questionable sources. The Society concluded that the risk of future fire-related incidents or accidents has increased due to the proliferation of lithium batteries and other risks.
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