By Mike Hughlett
Tribune staff reporter
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
"It's certainly one of the things we are particularly interested in,"
said Richard Stern, an associate director in the compliance office of
Reports of overheating incidents have risen as lithium-ion batteries
have come to rule the portable electronics business in the last few
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
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
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
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
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
Ortega's wife and 19-year-old son arrived home one evening in January
2005 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
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
"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
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
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,"
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.
Copyright 2006, Chicago Tribune
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[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: For those people inclined to think that
a fire caused by an exploding battery is 'just another urban legend'
which never has any verifiable source to it, here is an instance where
proof is available: Chicago Tribune, July 13, 2006 Section B, with a
real person named. PAT]