What caused a laptop battery to explode and start a fire? – Lancaster Newspapers

Rechargeable batteries can get hot while they’re recharging.


The bad news is, that can cause the equipment to overheat, leading in some cases to an explosion — like the one that caused a two-alarm, $55,000 fire at an apartment complex Sunday in New Holland.

The good news is, that sort of thing is pretty rare.

Think about it — rechargeable batteries are everywhere, in laptop computers, in phones, in iPods and other handy devices. How often do you hear about the fires they cause?

Almost never.

Even so, no one wants their smart phone or e-reader to spark a costly conflagration. What causes it to happen, and what can you do to prevent it?

“I remember reading a bulletin about laptop batteries several years ago,” Lt. Thomas Paul, an assistant fire marshal with the Lancaster City Bureau of Fire, said Monday.

Typically, he said, “these are older laptops — they aren’t brand new ones.”

Millions of lithium-ion batteries manufactured by Sony for various Apple and Dell products were recalled in 2006 after several fires occurred.

Problems may occur when a laptop is plugged in while the battery is fully charged and the laptop is in use, Paul said.

If you’re going to use the computer, he said, “unplug your laptop and allow your battery to work.”

Sean Williams, a computer repair technician with Digital Bridge Computer Services in Lancaster, said even that’s unlikely.

“Honestly, I’m not sure what someone can do to make something like that happen these days,” Williams said.

“Even real old laptops — and we get a lot of older computers brought in here — run a little warmer,” he said, noting that newer models have better ventilation designs. “But for something to get that hot, it would have to be by a heater or be on top of something.

“This is not something that the general public needs to be scared of.”

The fire on Sunday was discovered after a neighbor of the Ashlea Gardens apartment noticed smoke and called 911 around 2:40 p.m.

Firefighters quickly quelled the blaze.

Garden Spot Fire Rescue Chief Larry Martin said the battery explosion started three separate fires in the living room of the second-floor unit.

Lithium-ion batteries — one of the most common rechargeable power sources used in portable electronics — contain coils of metal and a flammable, lithium-containing liquid and separators that keep the positive and negative poles from touching, according to the website HowStuffWorks.com.

Tiny fragments of metal float in the liquid, a side effect of the manufacturing process that cannot entirely be prevented.

“If the battery gets hot through use or recharging, the pieces of metal can move around, much like grains of rice in a pot of water,” the website explains. “If a piece of metal gets too close to the separator, it can puncture the separator and cause a short circuit.”

Problems can also occur if a battery has been damaged externally — struck or dented, for instance — according to several online sources.

In such cases, the internal temperature of the battery can rise slowly, melting the battery and causing the liquid inside to leak out.

Or, if it creates a spark, the liquid can ignite and start a fire.

Or, if the temperature inside the battery rises rapidly, the website says, “the battery can explode due to the increased pressure.”

The problem isn’t limited to laptops. In 2007, a man at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport caught fire when his iPod Nano ignited in his pants pocket — one of several similar incidents.

And, the BBC reported in February about increasing concerns about lithium-ion battery fires on airplanes.

A plane carrying 100 passengers could have 500 such batteries, according to the report, once you count all the electronic devices people carry these days.

While most batteries are safe, according to the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority, there is increasing danger from “cheap, copycat batteries bought from dubious sources online.”

That’s true to some extent, said Williams. However, he added, “we buy a lot of generic replacement batteries. A lot of them are made by the same manufacturers that are made for HP or Dell.

“Some of them do run a little bit warmer. But I’ve never encountered one that ran hot.”

Someone is going to notice if a computer is overheating, Williams said.

“It should never be hot enough to burn you.”

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