Bucks County resident Loretta Luff considers herself fortunate that she was merely hospitalized with serious burns when her Dell laptop computer exploded Sunday afternoon.
A Langhorne-Middletown fire department spokesman says it appears the lithium ion battery pack inside the computer went off like a bomb, sending debris six to eight feet in her Langhorne Manor home. NewsWorks Tonight Host Dave Heller spoke about such batteries with Drexel University professor Yury Gogotsi.
Risk No. 1: Unlike alkaline batteries, lithium ion batteries run on explosive material.
Lithium ion batteries "have something like paint thinner," says Gogotsi. "Flammable and explosive."
Risk No. 2: The metal in the battery can get very hot.
"When materials used in batteries, metal oxides, are heated, so the battery is overheated," says Gogotsi. "They may start producing oxygen, which helps combustion. So you get an explosive mix inside the battery."
To counteract these risks, reputable manufacturers install a number of safeguards.
"Every battery has a pressure valve," says Gogotsi. "If pressure develops, it will burst in one place, preventing explosion. They also have an electrical circuit breaker in case of overcharging, and typically also thermal interrupters in case of overheating."
Gogotsi adds that circuitry in the battery charger is supposed to prevent the battery from overcharging. He says it appears that in this case, that function failed, causing the battery to overheat and explode. The best way to make sure your battery doesn't overcharge, says Gogotsi, is to buy a name brand battery that's compatible with the computer you have.
While he says incidents such as this one are rare, Gogotsi says there are inherent risks in using batteries with a long life.
"We all want our computers, our cell phone, to last longer, so we want our batteries to store more energy," says Gogotsi. "The more energy you pack inside, the more dangerous it becomes."