You are on a long-haul flight. You start dozing off while listening to your favorite playlist on the brand new battery-operated headphones that you purchased at the airport tech store—for a high price, I might add.
The sound quality is excellent. You make a mental note of just how different a battery-operated set of headphones is compared to the plug-in kind. A few minutes later, you awake abruptly. There is an explosion unsettlingly close to you. Immediately a burning sensation stretches across your face. You smell smoke and then the unmistakable odor of singed hair.
A young woman on a flight from Beijing to Melbourne was victim to such an incident when her headphones exploded and caught fire mid-flight. Her experience and others like it remind us of the dangers of Lithium-ion batteries, common to most of our everyday tech devices.
Critics and concerned consumers demanded to know the brand of the product. They wanted to assign responsibility and safeguard themselves from potential harm. The truth is that this problem is not isolated to a particular brand. It is ubiquitous to all battery-powered devices. A recent Washington Post report discussed a man who fell asleep with his iPhone charging in bed that nearly electrocuted him.
A spokesman for the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) reaffirmed this point. By refusing to reveal the brand of the headphones, the Bureau chose to draw attention to the bigger issue at heart.
"The ATSB has assessed that it is the batteries, as the power source, that caught on fire and is therefore the issue... All batteries contain stored energy and are therefore potentially risky." - ATSB Spokesperson
There are numerous battery-powered devices in our homes and on our bodies at all times. Devices such as phones, headphones, and external battery packs are all liable to short-circuit and cause damage.
As concerns, the ATSB sought to educate aircraft passengers about their in-flight responsibilities when it comes to tech products:
• Batteries should be kept in an approved stowage, unless in use
• Spare batteries must be in your carry-on baggage NOT checked baggage
• If a passenger’s smartphone or other device has fallen into the seat gap, locate their device before moving powered seats
• If a passenger cannot locate their device, they should refrain from moving their seat and immediately contact a cabin crew member.
Public Action and Consumer Habits
Safeguards against lithium-ion battery mishaps on passenger planes are a major issue now. Over in the UK, eBay recently reminded sellers that the International Civil Aviation Organization had reclassified lithium batteries as restricted goods. The reclassification prohibits the transportation and deliverance of the batteries via Royal Mail. Legislative changes such as this reshape supply chains. eBay was forced to cancel listings with Royal Mail delivery options.
At the individual level, consumers mostly lack proper battery hygiene. Unaware of the risks of overcharging and overheating, the likelihood of explosions increase significantly. These batteries are not meant to last a lifetime. Like most things, they decay. Some habits accelerate the rate of decay, like keeping your phone constantly connected.
That being said, our phones are not a ticking time bomb, contrary to what recent reports might have you believe (like this one from Gizmodo). Yet, as our energy demands increase and the number of devices in a single home similarly increase, we must modulate our usage and charging habits.
Furthermore, lambasting particular brands avoids the issue entirely. Samsung and similar brands can only do so much if the battery technology is underperforming. That is a separate vertical. It is the battery technology rather than the devices that are in dire need of an upgrade.
Nokia 3310 is supposed to reappear with a new addition: a 5-day battery. There is tremendous hype over this innovation, illustrating just how power-hungry consumers are for a device that relieves them from the tyranny of the wall outlet.
But will this battery be safe?
The disquiet about batteries unavoidably means people will not just want a longer lasting battery. They will want assurances of safety.