SINGAPORE: Earlier this year, a fire erupted on board a Scoot plane shortly before it was supposed to take off, caused by an overheated power bank. Two passengers were injured.
A few months on, in a Talking Point poll of nearly 800 people on Instagram, a third of them still thought they are allowed to use their portable charger on a plane that is taxiing before take-off or after landing.
This is a false belief. Passengers are allowed to use power banks only when a plane is cruising at altitude.
Explaining why, Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore’s head of dangerous goods, Vincent Koh, said: “At cruising altitude, the cabin crew is able to move around in the cabin.
“In the event of an incident involving a power bank, the cabin crew … can attend to (it) very quickly.”
When it comes to safety, the question is whether there is a difference between the various types of power banks. And what could be next in a world increasingly powered by rechargeable batteries?
THE SAFETY REQUIREMENTS
Portable power banks fall under the Consumer Protection (Consumer Goods Safety Requirements) Regulations. This means suppliers in Singapore are to ensure that the relevant safety standards are met before the power banks are sold locally, including online.
While pre-market testing, certification or approval from the Consumer Product Safety Office is not a requirement, the office does post-market checks on the adherence to safety standards.
Vendors who continue selling power banks after being directed to stop their sale, or who are directed to inform users of the potential dangers of the devices but fail to do so, may face a fine and/or imprisonment.
WATCH: When power banks explode — How safe is your portable charger? (22:36)
“When you just buy online from overseas — you go to Taobao or something similar — you don’t have this kind of protection because it’s outside the Singapore government’s purview,” said Andreas Hauser, head of energy storage systems at VDE Renewables Asia.
“(Power banks) aren’t forbidden (from being) imported. But you may get something that … may be quite dangerous.”
In Singapore, lithium-ion batteries in portable power banks must comply with the safety standard numbered 62133-2 by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). And in shops, Hauser has seen this certification indicated on power bank boxes.
But the safety expert warned: “The manufacturer may not necessarily include it. … It’s not required that there be some kind of sticker on the device.”
For example, two sets of power banks bought from an online marketplace and a gift website — costing S$10 to S$15 each — did not have this label, whereas a set of branded power banks that Talking Point bought off the shelf, at S$50 each, did.
But in the third power bank — which was unbranded, with certification unknown — the battery bloated up and bent the aluminium casing. Yet, the device was working, which made it dangerous, said Hauser.
“The normal user (might think) it’s fine to use. But it’s not,” he warned. “Eventually it’ll pop.”
Even so, it passed the overcharging test because it did not catch fire. “It’s not a fail. But it’s definitely a cause for concern,” he said.
In the next test, the power banks were vibrated with “relatively high” frequency. When one of the cheaply made devices with unknown certification status was opened later, he saw the battery cells held in place by a strip of glue.
By comparison, the branded, certified power bank had no cable and used a metal strip instead — welded on so that it will not “come off so easily”, with the battery cells fitting snugly in the case, he observed.
The last test was the drop test: The power banks were dropped onto a steel floor from a height of one metre. All three samples did not break open, but the aluminium one “popped open a little”, observed Hauser.
When they are carried into the aircraft cabin, then the crew can attend to any incident, he noted.
On the final poll question — whether it is okay to charge a portable charger by plugging it into the in-flight entertainment system — 59 per cent of respondents said no.
The answer is, “it depends”, said Koh. Power banks can be charged using the in-flight power supply only when the plane is cruising at altitude.
A POSSIBLE SOLUTION
On the ground, two scientists in Singapore are leading the charge towards safer lithium-based energy storage systems — by upcycling waste plastic bottles into polymer electrolytes for batteries.
But he cautioned that bringing it to market “could take a while” because of the processes — “of optimisation, of the making of these electrolytes, to integrating them into batteries” — that must be done before commercialisation is possible.
He cannot say for sure if this will even happen within five years, only “not anytime soon”. Meantime, he warned about the dangers of leaving a power bank unattended — “and it’s overcharging”.
For those shopping for one, Talking Point host Steven Chia suggested “one with the necessary protection against overcharging and therefore overheating”.
From the results of the stress tests that were done, it seems to him that price reflects the quality, and thus safety, of a power bank.
“At the very least I should look for one that’s clearly labelled,” he said. “And if you can’t find (the safety standard label) on the box, you can always drop the manufacturer an email.”
Watch this episode of Talking Point here. The programme airs on Channel 5 every Thursday at 9.30pm.