July 13, 2006
It has the ring of an urban legend: A cell phone blows up and sets fire to a house.
But to Pablo Ortega, it's no myth.
A mobile phone exploded in his living room last year, causing up to $100,000 in damages. Ortega and his family had to live in a trailer for a few months while their house in California was fixed.
Fire and insurance investigators concluded the phone's lithium-ion battery failed and then ignited.
Ortega's case is one of 339 battery-related overheating incidents tracked by the Consumer Product Safety Commission since 2003. Most involve lithium-ion batteries, which have become the dominant power source for all sorts of portable electronic gadgets.
Aviation regulators are taking notice too. The National Transportation Safety Board held a hearing Wednesday in Washington, D.C., to explore whether lithium-ion batteries stowed in a cargo jet caused a midair fire last winter on its approach to Philadelphia.
A lithium-ion battery is able to store a tremendous amount of energy in a small space. But if it short circuits or otherwise fails, all that energy can cause a violent explosion.
Such explosions and fires are rare considering the hundreds of millions of cell phones, laptops, digital cameras and other devices that are powered by lithium-ion batteries.
"The safety record of lithium-ion batteries is very good," said Dan Doughty, a battery expert at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. "But occasionally there are problems."
And since those problems can cause serious injuries and major property damage, it's gotten a lot of attention from the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
"It's certainly one of the things we are particularly interested in," said Richard Stern, an associate director in the compliance office of the commission.
Reports of overheating incidents have risen as lithium-ion batteries have come to rule the portable electronics business in the last few years.
Battery recalls are on the rise too. The safety commission has announced eight since October, after 10 during the previous 12 months and five in the year before that. Nineteen of the 23 recalls involved lithium-based batteries.
They occurred after the safety commission or an electronics manufacturer received reports of batteries overheating and sometimes causing minor injuries or property damage.
The recalls include more than 2 million batteries and involve major laptopmakers Dell Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Apple Computer Inc.; camera giant Nikon Corp.; and a firm that makes portable DVD players under the Disney brand.
Most electronics-makers, including Schaumburg-based cell phone giant Motorola Inc., buy lithium-ion batteries primarily from Asian manufacturers. They are shipped by boat or plane.
The Federal Aviation Administration is examining the potential risks of such batteries as cargo in passenger planes. In 2004, non-rechargeable "primary" lithium batteries were banned as cargo on passenger flights. The FAA found that Halon, a fire suppressant used on planes, couldn't snuff out a primary-lithium-battery fire.
Primary lithium batteries contain volatile lithium metal; rechargeable lithium-ion batteries don't, operating instead with less volatile lithium chemical compounds. Still, the FAA noted "concerns" about lithium-ion batteries as cargo.
Although an FAA report on the issue is due out within a few months, FAA fire-safety expert Harry Webster said at Wednesday's NTSB hearing that recent tests show Halon effectively fights lithium-ion battery fires.
The hearing was called because a UPS jet was forced to make an emergency landing in February. Its crew escaped unhurt, but the blaze severely damaged the plane and shut down the Philadelphia airport for several hours.
The NTSB hasn't determined the fire's cause. (The plane also had flammable solvent in its cargo hold). There have been a handful of minor air-cargo fires involving lithium-ion batteries, according to an NTSB report.
No one has been killed or seriously injured in the U.S. by lithium-ion battery combustion, the safety commission says.
But there have been numerous reports of property damage, including fires like the one at Pablo Ortega's house in Selma, Calif., a town near Fresno.
Ortega's wife and 19-year-old son arrived home one evening in January2005 to find their house full of smoke.
When firefighters arrived, the fire was out. But the living room had been destroyed, according to safety commission records. Fire investigators found the charred remains of a Motorola V220 cell phone on the living-room floor. The phone, which had been purchased a month earlier, had been charging while the Ortegas were away.
Fire and insurance investigators concluded the battery malfunctioned and exploded, rocketing almost 16 feet across the living room, igniting a curtain fire that spread to furniture.
Ortega said he thinks the living room's marble floors stopped the flames from destroying the whole house.
"If it weren't for the marble floors, adios," he said.
Ortega said his insurance covered the bulk of damages.
Motorola declined to comment, saying Ortega's case is "pending." However, the company says it contacts the consumer in any reported battery incident and tries to determine what happened.
"The battery industry does take safety very seriously," Motorola energy technologies manager Jason Howard said at Wednesday's NTSB hearing. "The acceptable number of incidents is zero."
Portable computers require more battery power than phones, so a laptop explosion could be more severe. But people carry phones in pockets and on belt clips, potentially increasing the hazard of a skin burn if a battery overheats.
For example, in May 2003 a Plano, Texas, man was driving with his family to visit relatives when he heard "a loud bang, sort of like a firecracker," a safety commission report said. Suddenly, his car filled with smoke, and the man "felt flames lapping at his back."
His phone, clipped to his side, had ignited because of a battery problem, the commission's file said. The man claimed to have sustained first-, second- and third-degree burns.
Robert Colabella, a log-home salesman, had a similar experience last year while driving from his home in Murphy, N.C., to a convention in Atlanta.
"All of a sudden, I don't know how to describe it, but something in that vehicle exploded, and I had no idea what it was," he said in an interview.
His vehicle quickly filled with smoke.
"I was in trouble. I was all over the road," Colabella said.
After managing to pull over, he discovered a spare cell phone battery he was carrying in his jacket pocket had blown up.
His jacket was destroyed, and he burned a finger on a smoldering battery fragment while trying to undo his seat belt. He later filed a complaint with the safety commission.
Many types of batteries can fail and combust. But lithium-ion batteries have at least twice as much stored energy as the next most powerful electronics battery. So, an explosion is potentially twice as powerful. Plus, the electrolyte in lithium-ion batteries is flammable.
To prevent combustion, lithium-ion batteries are outfitted with sophisticated safeguards, battery experts say. But they obviously are not foolproof.
Batteries often ignite due to short circuits. And in several cases short circuits have occurred after a cell phone was dropped and its battery accidentally compressed, said the safety commission's Stern.
Counterfeiting also has been a culprit in some lithium-ion battery incidents, he said. Rogue battery-makers have slapped the names of well-known brands on shoddily designed products.
Still, most battery recalls and overheating incidents don't appear to have involved counterfeits, according to the safety commission. Sometimes, batteries go bad simply because of quality-control issues at a legitimate battery manufacturer, Stern said.
Stern said major computer-makers, phone firms and other electronics manufacturers have been good about reporting battery problems to regulators. Those reports have led to voluntary recalls in tandem with the safety commission.
"It's to their credit that they stepped up and recognized these issues," Stern said.
They pack a real energy punch
ADVANTAGES: A lithium-ion battery can be lighter because of its high-energy density. It is low maintenance with relatively low self-discharge, less than half of nickel-based batteries.
DISADVANTAGES: Lithium-ion batteries are subject to aging, even if not in use, and usually more expensive. They aren't as durable and can easily rupture, ignite or explode when exposed to high temperatures.
Source: Cadex Electronics.
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