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Electronic device batteries: Nobel winners and new fire risk worries

Look for news about an honor or achievement in any field. Tell what you find.
Read about a college or university in your state. Why is it newsworthy?
Summarize coverage of a safety risk or an agency that protects us.

Lithium-ion batteries made headlines for two reasons last week – one positive, one negative. The good news is a Nobel Prize for chemistry, awarded to three pioneering researchers. The flip side is fresh concern about fire hazards from use of the popular batteries in vaping devices and personal electronics. Their development earned Nobel honors for two Americans – retired Professors John Goodenough and M. Stanley Whittingham – and Akira Yoshino of Japan. Their separate scientific work laid the foundation for rechargeable batteries that power phones, tablets, laptops, e-cigarettes, heart pacemakers, electric vehicles and other products. "They created a rechargeable world," says the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which presents a set of prizes each year. The trio will share a $918,000 cash award and get gold medals next month in Stockholm, Sweden.

Although the batteries have many advantages, including an ability to be recharged thousands of times, their tendency to overheat and cause fires is a problem. They're already banned from checked-in airplane luggage on U.S. flights, and the president of a flight attendants' union now wants the Federal Aviation Administration to ban e-cigarettes in carry-on bags or passengers' pockets – as it did in 2016 with the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phone. Data from 1991 through this August shows at least 48 smoke or fire incidents at airports or on planes related to e-cigarettes (vape pens). That's part of a broader problem. U.S. passengers bring an estimated 2.3 billion electronic devices on planes each year, and federal regulators have struggled to keep up -- often deferring to airlines to manage potential dangers.

Danger to air crews and travelers isn't the only concern. After a Southern California dive boat fire killed 34 people in September, the Coast Guard recommended "limiting the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries" on vessels. Many pieces of diving equipment, such as lights, cameras, computers and breathing technology, use such batteries. Trip operators have on-board charging stations to keep them juiced.

Nobel panelist says: "We have gained access to a technical revolution. The [three winners] developed lightweight batteries with high enough potential to be useful in many applications." -- Sara Snogerup Linse, member of the Nobel committee for chemistry

Union head says: "How about we just not have these e-cigarettes on a plane at all?" – Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants

Safety expert says: "We think [the batteries are] a pretty significant threat. It's gone from one to multiple devices that most passengers are carrying on. You don't know where all these things are coming from and what’s in them." -- Mark Millam, Flight Safety Foundation vice president

Front Page Talking Points is written by Alan Stamm for, Copyright 2019
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