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Publication Date: 10/1/2010
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Caution: Li-Ion Batteries on Board
Walter Salm, Editor
Are computer batteries the next culprits on the FAA's radar? Heard several times — at the IPC/ATE extravaganza in Rosemont — was the disquieting news that the Federal Aviation Administration may ban notebook computers from carry-on baggage because of lithium-ion batteries' potential for rupturing and exploding, and thus causing cabin fires.

It's all the lithium's fault, since this highly reactive metal, an intrinsic part of today's rechargeable computer batteries, has a very unfortunate characteristic: when it comes in contact with moisture (or highly humid atmosphere) it can explode. This particular chemical property of lithium has been long known to the electronics industry. Lithium has been used even longer as an orally ingested medication to treat bipolar disorders, but I suspect never causing anyone's stomach to explode.

Why has this new interest and witch hunt by the FAA suddenly developed? The FAA first started to talk about this problem in 2008, and nobody seemed to notice it at the time except for a brief article in Computerworld magazine (Feb. 22, 2008). Now there seems to be renewed interest and speculation.

What is the real problem with these batteries? Simply put, seals that leak, and sloppy QC at the factory. The first thing that comes to mind is that the problem batteries come from some backwater area of China where QC may not be thought of as very important. But the biggest problem seems to be batteries from a major Japanese company that undoubtedly makes its lithium-ion batteries somewhere else. This same company is supplying batteries to several major computer companies, further compounding the problem.

The question is really not who makes the batteries, but why the batteries leak. This was made demonstrably clear to me at the Rosemont Expo by a distributor who I interviewed briefly. When I found my digital recorder wouldn't work, I opened it to find that one of its two fairly new AAA cells was leaking and corroding one of its battery contacts. I had put fresh batteries in the recorder five months before and had used it for just one story in U.S. Tech. How was it possible for a battery to leak when it still had 4 years to go on its shelf-life date? A bad seal. My friend gave me two almost-fresh batteries from his mouse that he had purchased in China only a week before. The label was in Chinese, but the battery brand was easily recognizable — the same brand as my leaker. The replacement Chinese batteries worked just fine.

Back to the lithium: it's been more than two years since the FAA first talked about banning laptop batteries in the passenger compartment. So far, they haven't acted, but it will take only one computer battery explosion during a flight to generate a total crackdown. This can be bad news for those of us who cherish those few hours of flight time when we can actually get a little work done on the computer, or play a game of Hearts, or watch a favorite movie. There are some rules already in effect. You can't carry any spare batteries that contain more than 8 grams of lithium. Batteries that are inside the computer are okay. The same rules apply to any checked baggage.

If and when the FAA does indeed ban battery-carrying laptops, we may very well be forced into other forms of in-flight entertainment, like (horrors) actually reading a book. I never travel anywhere — not even to the grocery store — without a paperback of some kind. I hate waiting in checkout lines, so rather than peruse the scandal rags in the racks at the supermarket checkout, I read a book. There's always a book sitting on the back seat of my car; I even keep a "spare" in the side pocket in case I get caught without my current paperback. I could get stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic (it happens), it goes with me to doctor's offices, I read while waiting for my wife to try on some clothes in a fitting room. But I am convinced that reading is unfortunately becoming a lost art; we have too many electronic toys to amuse us.

In the meantime, it doesn't look as though the ban will come any time soon. The airlines have already invested a lot of money installing in-flight wi-fi for paying computer-toting passengers. But all it will take is one explosion and cabin fire to change everything.  

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