Growing concerns over lithium batteries on planes

Electronic repair specialist Camren De Waard shows 24 Hour News 8 how a laptop could be turned into a bomb. (May 31, 2017)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A flight from New York to San Francisco had to make an emergency landing in Grand Rapids on Tuesday evening after a lithium battery in a carry-on caught fire.

The fire was put out, no one was hurt and the flight was soon back in the air on the way to its destination.

Lithium batteries are in many of our electronic devices, including laptops and tablets and smartphones — though officials haven’t yet confirmed what type of device was involved in the Tuesday incident.


Electronic repair specialist Camren De Waard with Genius Phone Repair says the passengers are lucky.

“A number of things can cause them (lithium batteries) to light on fire, including accidental damage, heat, past damage,” De Waard said.

Most of us have dropped our electronic devices at least once. Those bumps can cause the battery to expand. It’s then at risk of admitting dangerous gas or starting a fire.

Because they are contained inside the device, expanded batteries may go unnoticed, so it’s important that you take precautions.

“One of the things that can help prevent any swelling or damage is don’t ever use your laptop with a pillow beside it or on a bed sheet. Leave it on a hard service and make sure you unplug it when you are done charging it,” De Waard said.

De Waard explained that charging the battery can the expansion.

“If there is any disruption to that or any heat applied to that, it can cause a reaction that can cause extreme heat and then fire as well as poisonous gases,” he explained.

Those gases can be invisible.

“There hasn’t been extensive testing on this, but it’s definitely a poison that will hurt your body,” he said


The incident happened as the federal government is considering a widened ban on laptops — which have lithium batteries — on flights coming into the U.S. because of concerns they could be used in a terrorist attack on a plane.

It has happened before. In February 2016, a laptop was used to blow hole in plane over Somalia and take down a Russian jetliner over Egypt.

De Waard said it’s easy to use the small devices to create a big explosion.

“A terrorist attack through the use of a laptop is actually a very real concern. The process to convert a laptop into a bomb would not be that difficult,” he said. “Your trigger, of course would be your power button. When you do hit the power button, that’s when it sends that electrical current back through the battery where you can get your ignition and then you’d have possibly other explosive hidden inside.”

The FAA has already banned laptops, e-readers, tablets and DVD players have from 10 airports in the Middle East and North Africa. The devices have to be in checked luggage, which goes through a more thorough screening.

Transportation Security Administration agents are well trained to look for anything out of the ordinary on devices. De Waard says they have diagrams of the motherboards.