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