Tulsa businesses offer products to help airlines deal with lithium ion battery problems
By Casey Smith
© 2016 BH Media Group, Inc.
Lithium ion batteries haven’t become more dangerous in recent years. But with more and more devices being powered by the batteries — and with portable technology becoming increasing prevalent — more opportunities for problems have developed.
That, at least in part, is a reason that the potential hazards are more on the public’s radar, said Kent Faith, CEO of SpectrumFX.
“There’s more events just based on more opportunity,” Faith said, citing a 2013 Royal Aeronautical Society study that estimated as many as 500 lithium batteries would likely be aboard in a 100-seat jet, with most of them in the cabin.
If one of those devices bursts into flame, Faith said, passengers can’t just walk away — not at 35,000 feet.
“So far the events that have happened have worked out OK,” Faith said. “I’m worried about that laptop bag that catches fire in an overhead compartment, where it’s not seen right away.”
Faith has a unique perspective on the matter. A pilot for 35 years, he currently flies with a major commercial carrier. In 2012 he started a second career by launching the Tulsa-based SpectrumFX, a company that uses its patented technology to create a suite of nontoxic fire suppression products marketed primarily to the aviation and auto racing communities.
Included in the product line is the LIFE Kit — short for Lithium Fire Extinguishing — that uses the patented biodegradable extinguishing agent Firebane to extinguish and cool lithium battery fires quickly and safely.
The driver for the public’s current conversation about the risks of lithium ion batteries lay in high-profile problems with Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7.
According to Associated Press coverage of Samsung Electronics’ recent investors meeting, the South Korean company reported that there have been 140 confirmed cases of the smartphone overheating or catching fire. There have been 339 total reports of the phones overheating, with 140 of those incidents related to battery problems.
On Oct. 13 Samsung issued a voluntary recall on all 2.5 million of the phones that were manufactured. The next day the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration announced an emergency order banning the devices from all flights.
Another Tulsa-based company, Viking Packing Specialist, also has technology aimed at allowing airlines to safely deal with lithium-ion battery fires in flight. Viking recently announced that Delta Air Lines would be putting its new product AvSax, a yellow bag that uses patented technology to cool hot batteries and contain the majority of smoke a device might be emitting, in its international wide-body fleet.
“Lithium ion technology is fabulous in that it stores energy for long periods of time and gives us these devices we love to carry around with us all the time,” Viking President David Weilert said.
However, that convenience comes with a major downside, he said — if something goes wrong, they can go from room temperature to 700 degrees Celsius in the blink of an eye.
“They can be very volatile when not treated properly or manufactured improperly,” Weilert said.
The case of the Galaxy Note 7, powered by lithium ion batteries, is the most attention-grabbing technological recall as of late. But the batteries that contain the potential for rapid self-heating of battery cells and fire or explosion also power other brands of smartphones as well as other portable electronics like laptops, tablets and smartwatches.
“Anything that has a battery is lithium ion technology, generally speaking, in today’s world,” Weilert said.
Between January and mid-September of this year there were at least 23 lithium battery events involving fire, smoke, extreme heat or explosion in aircraft or airports, according to a list of such events compiled by the Federal Aviation Administration.
During full-year 2015, 2014 and 2013, the report lists 16, nine and eight of the events respectively. According to the FAA, the report includes recent cargo and baggage incidents that the FAA is aware of and should not be considered as a complete listing of all such incidents.
More than one-third of the listed 2016 incidents involved electronic cigarettes or vaporizers. The most recent occurred on Sept. 7 when an e-cigarette in the purse of a passenger entering the baggage claim area at Dallas Love Field exploded, burning the purse, some of its contents and charring the woman’s shirt. Witnesses stated small fiery pieces had to be extinguished by people standing waiting for their bags.
Another such incident occurred on a June 10 flight from Costa Rica to Fort Lauderdale when an e-cigarette inside a passenger’s backpack began to smoke. The fire was extinguished with a fire extinguisher and then the e-cig was submerged in water.
Of the remaining 2016 incidents, six involved battery chargers, four involved cell phones, two involved laptops, and one involved a tablet. One was an unspecified piece of technology.
Weilert said that he believes within the next three to four months the U.S. cargo and passenger carriers that haven’t already added additional tools for flight crews to deal with lithium ion fires will be doing so.
“It’s that big of an issue to the industry,” Weilert said. “The public is sufficiently scared now.”