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I-Team: Portable Battery Chargers Could Explode, Cause Fire

BOSTON (CBS) - Keeping phones and tablets charged is a challenge of modern life. They always seem to be running low on power.

Portable lithium ion battery backs are a popular solution to keep electronic gadgets running.

Most of the time they work great, but that wasn't the case for Michelle Grace after she plugged a USB cord into a charger. "I felt my knee actually burning. It sort of had a little flash back on my jeans, and that's when I knew something is happening."

A rug was scorched by fire. Charred pieces of the battery pack flew around her apartment. Her clothes and skin were burned.

Battery fire
A couch damaged after a battery fire (WBZ-TV)

"It all happened so fast," explained Grace. "I turned around and my couch was on fire, full on flames."

Grace had bought her battery pack from a popular national retailer for about $30.

To date, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has documented 540 complaints involving all types of charging devices. In one case, a report explains how a device exploded and caught fire. There were two significant holes in the bedroom carpet.

Professor Yan Wang of Worcester Polytechnic Institute is a mechanical engineer who specializes in batteries. He said battery fires are more intense if the battery is fully charged.

Wang has conducted experiments on lithium battery fires. Video of the experiments shows how the devices can quickly explode. "They can hurt people," said Wang.

Battery fire
A battery explodes during an experiment (Image from Yan Wang)

Although fires are not common, Wang says problems can occur in older devices with battery management systems that no longer work. This means they continue to take a charge even when they are 100% full. "You have overheating, and fire, and explosion eventually," explained Wang.

Another concern is that many products today are cheap imports, or hard to detect counterfeits. "Some of the products are not of the highest standard, and potentially can be dangerous," said Wang.

As for Grace, she's just thankful her explosion wasn't worse. "Had I been on an airplane, or if I had small kids that were around, that could have been extremely frightening."

The Federal Aviation Administration is also concerned about lithium ion batteries and chargers on planes. They are now prohibiting passengers from putting these types of batteries in their checked baggage.

The FAA will be part of international meetings this week which will be discussing a possible ban of these batteries as cargo in all passenger planes due to fire concerns.

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