Background on lithium batteries - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Background on lithium batteries

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Unlike other kinds of batteries, some lithium batteries contain metal that will spontaneously ignite if exposed to air. Also, the positive and negative poles in some lithium batteries are close together, leading more easily to short circuiting, which can cause a fire.

Lithium batteries come in two types: lithium metal, which are nonrechargeable and are used in products like watches and cameras, and lithium-ion, which are rechargeable and are used for products like laptop computers, cell phones and power tools. Both can short circuit and ignite if they are improperly packaged, damaged or have manufacturing defects. Batteries contained in devices can also overheat and ignite if the device inadvertently turns on.

Overheated lithium batteries can blow the lids off steel shipping containers with enough force to damage a plane. Once a battery catches fire, the heat can set off other batteries.

The halon gas fire suppression systems required in the cargo compartments of passenger planes don't work on fires caused by lithium metal batteries. Shipment of lithium metal batteries is already prohibited on passenger planes, but not cargo planes. There is also concern that if a large quantity of lithium-ion batteries was to ignite, it could overwhelm a halon suppression system.

Lithium-ion battery fires can reach 1,100 degrees, close to the melting point of aluminum, a key material in airplane construction.  Lithium-metal battery fires are far hotter, capable of reaching 4,000 degrees.

The Air Line Pilots Association has asked LaHood to ban air shipments of all lithium batteries until new rules are implemented. "It's difficult to know what caused the (Dubai) fire, but it really doesn't matter because we know that a fire did break out on that airplane and the situation quickly became uncontrollable," said Mark Rogers, ALPA's hazardous materials chairman. "We had what was possibly a live demonstration of what can happen if batteries are exposed to fire."

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