MH370: The Lithium-Ion Battery Theory

  • Mar 22, 2014 1:18pm GMT

The UK's Daily Mail is reporting that Malaysian Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari has now said that MH370 carried lithium-ion batteries as cargo in addition to the previous disclosure four days ago that MH370 carried 3-4 tons of mangosteens in addition to passenger baggage.

The revelation that the ill-fated Boeing 777-200ER may have been carrying lithium-ion batteries as cargo lends credibility to the theory that the pilots may have been overcome by fire and/or smoke in the aircraft due to thermal runaway that originated with the batteries in the cargo hold.

Lithium-ion batters, while pound for pound offer a tremendous resource of energy, have had a love-hate relationship with aviation.

Three instances directly related to lithium-ion batteries and aviation are worth a closer look:

One iPhone: One Commuter Plane

In November 2011, a commuter airline, turboprop Saab 340B was taxing to the gate after flying from Lismore to Sydney, Australia. During taxi, a flight attendant noticed smoke coming from a seat near a passenger. The flight attendant asked the passenger to throw the item into the aisle and the flight attendant doused it with a fire extinguisher. The device was determined to be an Apple iPhone, and it was later discovered that the lithium-ion battery had suffered from thermal runaway caused by an improper battery replacement not conducted by an Apple authorized service center. See the pictures below for the actual iPhone that was part of the incident.

In this instance, a single lithium-ion battery was able to reach a critical state and pour smoke and fumes into the cabin of an aircraft. Fortunately, they were on the ground and the risk to the passengers, crew and aircraft was minimal.

Lithium-Ion Batteries Take Down a 747

The next instance was not so fortunate, and a UPS 747-400F cargo aircraft suffered a fatal crash near Dubai because of lithium-ion batteries carried in the cargo hold.

In September 2010, the UPS 747 departed Dubai for Cologne. About 25 minutes after takeoff, the pilots reported a fire in the cockpit and turned the aircraft around to attempt a return to Dubai. Ultimately, the pilots were overcome by smoke and fire and were unable to land the jet, crashing in an unpopulated area near the Dubai Airport.

The investigation later determined that the fire originated from the lithium-ion batteries being transported in the cargo hold. The fire and smoke penetrated the flight deck and the pilots were effectively unable to see the instruments needed to navigate the 747 back to a safe landing within that critical time frame as the fire spread.