Nowadays, living without portable electronic devices (PEDs) is inconceivable. Smartphones, laptops, tablets, digital cameras, e-book readers and smartwatches are our constant companions — on plane journeys just as much as anywhere else. Passengers, however, are not always aware of the risks: If a PED gets caught in a seat or overheats while charging, the lithium-ion battery inside it can heat up and expand. In extreme cases, it can give off hot, toxic and flammable gases that could put passengers and crew members at risk. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), incidents caused by lithium-ion batteries on passenger flights have increased in recent years. The administration estimates between 35 and 50 cases per year. On December 26, 2022, a Lufthansa aircraft even had to make an unscheduled landing at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago after an overheated laptop belonging to a passenger started a smoldering fire in the cabin.
This alarmingly high rate of incidents can be attributed to the growing number of PEDs and lithium batteries being brought on board, including e-cigarettes, power banks and battery-powered screwdrivers. In the LOKI-PED (Lithium batteries in pOrtable electronic devices – risK of fIre and smoke) project, researchers at Fraunhofer EMI and Fraunhofer IBP are collaborating with Airbus to investigate and assess the smoke and fire risks associated with lithium batteries in PEDs in cabins and cockpits. The project is supported by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and financed by the European Union’s Horizon Europe program.
Test bench and flight lab tests
“A scientifically sound risk assessment is urgently needed, especially as cabin and firefighting procedures have not changed since 2014. In LOKI-PED, we are investigating whether standards need to be updated and new guidelines and protective measures established to minimize risks,” says the project manager Dr. Simon Holz of Fraunhofer EMI. Dr. Holz’s team is complemented by Dr. Victor Norrefeldt, technical manager at Fraunhofer IBP, and his research group, alongside experts from Airbus. The project partners are working on characterizing the main risks of PEDs and the effects of fire and smoke in cockpits and cabins, assessing the risks in view of the number and energy content of PEDs, evaluating emergency measures and additional countermeasures — such as ventilation and protective bags — and identifying gaps in the regulatory provisions. The consequences of smoke and fire are being investigated at high-performance test benches such as the Flight Test Facility at Fraunhofer IBP and the TEVLIB battery testing center at Fraunhofer EMI. The TEVLIB center offers unique conditions for carrying out destructive tests, even on large battery systems, while maintaining the highest standards of safety. The experiments serve as a basis for numeric simulations and the subsequent risk assessment.