The television images of flaming Dell laptops may be fun to watch, but to the Federal Aviation Administration, those laptops are not a significant problem for air travel.
Dick Hill, the FAAs program manager for Aircraft Fire and Cabin Safety Research, has been testing lithium ion batteries like those used in laptops to see how likely they are to catch on fire, and how hard they are to extinguish if they do start burning. Hill works at the William J. Hughes FAA Technical Center at the Atlantic City International Airport, in New Jersey.
“Theyre no more hazardous than any other battery-powered piece of equipment,” Hill told eWEEK in an exclusive interview. Hill said that while such batteries can catch on fire, “If youre carrying it into the passenger cabin, the flight attendants should be capable of using an extinguisher and controlling it easily.”
In fact, Hill was testing a lot more than just a few laptop batteries. His tests involved hundreds of batteries at a time. The idea was to see if shipping batteries as cargo would be dangerous to passengers. Hes determined that it isnt.
The difference between lithium ion batteries and the lithium batteries that are banned from being carried as cargo on passenger aircraft is that standard on-board fire suppression systems can handle lithium ion batteries, but cannot put out a burning lithium battery.
Lithium batteries are usually small, and are used in hearing aids, cameras and the like. Individually, those items are allowed on airplanes. The rechargeable Lithium ion batteries that are used in cell phones, iPods and laptops are safer, Hill said.
However, Hill pointed out that the agency is not testing individual batteries. Thats already been done by British aviation authorities, Hill said, adding that the results of those tests were confirmed by his tests: Even though such batteries may catch on fire, the resulting fire could be put out easily. Hill also noted that any battery can catch on fire, whether its a lithium fire or not. “All batteries can explode if theyre shorted out,” he said.
Still, Hill said hes not in favor of having fires on board aircraft. “Anytime a fire happens on an airplane, it could get out of hand … we want to make sure that if something happens, you can control it.” He also said that if laptop batteries started becoming a more frequent problem on flights, the FAA might have to look again.
“We wouldnt like this happening over and over,” Hill said. “Youre better off not having fires.”
Hill does have worries about batteries, however. “The next generation of batteries coming out are fuel cells, and were very concerned about that,” he said.