A unique invention that harnesses BlastSax technology to contain lithium-ion battery fires on board planes and saves airline companies a fortune has won a top award.

Huddersfield company Environmental Defence Systems Ltd is to receive The Queen’s Award for Innovation 2018 – one of the most prestigious awards any company can get – for its AvSax containment bag.

The bag is used to deal with lithium-ion battery fires in electronic equipment on aircraft, is in use with many of the world’s best known airlines and has been used 27 times to deal with emergencies since the start of 2017.

The fires are caused by lithium-ion batteries going into what is known as thermal runaway inside electronic devices ranging from mobile phones to laptops carried on board by passengers.

When one cell in a battery overheats it can produce enough heat – up to 900°C (1652°F) – to cause adjacent cells to overheat. This can cause a lithium battery fire to flare repeatedly.

Incidents of thermal runaway are on the rise.

Lithium-ion battery fires on board planes are rarely publicised but a fire in a device could emit toxic smoke and potentially the battery may even explode, causing damage to the aircraft and putting lives at risk.

There are many cases where lithium-ion battery fires have caused planes to be diverted as an emergency and the average cost of that in the USA is $400,000.

AvSax managing director Richard Bailey said: “AvSax is the result of many years of development, drawing on experience from the production of an alternative sandbag we invented called a BlastSax designed for the military to reduce the impact of fragmentation generated by small improvised explosive devices.

“The danger is that with so many poor quality and fake batteries around there is no doubt that incidents will continue to happen. The fact that AvSax have been deployed so many times shows there is a real need for this product. Any fire on board a plane is a frightening prospect but the AvSax has proved itself in action time and time again.”

A recent estimate revealed that aircraft carrying just 100 passengers could have around 300 to 500 lithium batteries on board when you tot up all the laptops, cameras, e-readers, tablets and mobile phones that need them. There is always a possibility that poor quality or damaged batteries can overheat, causing them to go into thermal runaway which could lead to the device catching fire.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the USA has reported 191 fires between 1991 and January 2018 from lithium batteries carried on-board aircraft as cargo or baggage. Ominously, of those, 46 were reported in 2017.

In one incident where an AvSax was deployed a passenger on a flight from Fukuoka to Honolulu dropped his iPhone 7 and when he tried to shift his seat it crushed the phone and battery. His fingers were singed and there was smoke and the smell of burning plastic in the cabin.

The crew retrieved the phone and put it in an AvSax to prevent any other danger. The plane landed safely.

EDS Ltd also produce the pioneering FloodSax sandless sandbags that inflate on contact with water to act as an effective barrier to keep floodwater out of homes and businesses. Well over 2m have now been sold worldwide. FloodSax are also ideal at soaking up leaks and spills inside. 

So how do AvSax work?

If an electronic device starts to seriously overheat or emit smoke the cabin crew will pour at least two litres of water into an AvSax. It is imperative to first knock down the flames from the device using an on board halon fire extinguisher, then transfer the device into AvSax before it reignites. Additional water is then required. The water activates the polymer gel inside the bag causing it to expand around the device. Should the device keep on venting then the AvSax is tough enough to absorb the energy.

The AvSax cools the batteries in the device, reducing the likelihood of the battery igniting but if it does go into thermal runaway it is all contained within the bag.

Amazingly, the water is absorbed into the internal lining of the bag so the device is dry when it is removed.