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Cargo Carriage of Lithium Batteries Suspected in Some Accidents

The prospect of one laptop computer or smartphone erupting into lithium-battery-fed flames is daunting enough, but what about a pallet of lithium batteries carried as cargo? Some fiery accidents have been blamed on just that, and so far authorities have done little to prevent this type of accident from recurring.

In testimony at a hazardous materials transportation hearing before Congress on May 13, 2009, NTSB member (now chairman) Deborah Hersman cited accidents involving lithium batteries. In her testimony, Hersman pointed out that there are two types of lithium battery. Primary ones, the nonrechargeable type used in watches and small devices, contain lithium metal, which burns when exposed to air. Secondary or lithium-ion batteries are found in laptop computers, tablets, smartphones and so on, and are made using electrically charged lithium (ions) in a flammable liquid electrolyte, according to Hersman. “Overheating of the battery can result in the ignition of the flammable electrolyte.”


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