Monday, July 10, 2006

Exploding LiOn batteries and air travel

[see update for my second thoughts]

I hadn't paid much attention to June reports of an exploding Lithium ion battery. This happens every few years, sometimes there are product recalls, sometimes not. Today a NYT article on the impact on Dell piqued my curiousity, and I read the Inquirer article. The pictures sure are impressive.

In the story a witness is quoted: "..It is only a matter of time until such an incident breaks out on a plane...". Hmm. Good point. When I was in high school a rogue lab tech demonstrated the joy of Lithium by dropping a chunk of it in a pan of water. That was one of my more memorable learning experiences. Lithium is wonderously reactive.

So how long before LiOn batteries are banned from air travel? It must now have occurred to a large number of people that a rare accident could be engineered into a planned event.

Update: Hmm. Second thoughts. There's not that much lithium in those batteries. Was that fireball photoshopped? Was there a big pile of paper beneath the laptop? One can set fire to a bag of newspaper and get a fireball on an airplane too ... I'd like to see a 'Dan's Data' analysis, but I suspect the FAA considered this problem a while back and decided it wasn't worth worrying about ...

Update 7/10: Dan did a quick private analysis for me and pointed to this public resource. Suffice to say LiOn batteries are not a security threat. The email from Dan also caused me to reflect again on something that's become apparent over the past five years.

Most terrorists, like almost all criminals, are not very bright. If someone like Dan went bad, the threat would be far greater -- but it's evidently rare for a truly bright or imaginative person to join a group like al Qaeda. Even their very few elite agents, like Atta or Zawahiri, were/are only a bit above average. I think that's the main thing that's kept us going, but it wasn't obvious to me when I wrote this.

Update 7/17/06But on third thought ...

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