Monday, May 30, 2016

Too Much Bang For the Buck: Exploding E-Cigarettes

Last June, a man named Hamid Sadeghy was installing a car windshield in Austin, Texas when he felt a vibration in his pocket.  Sadeghy, who owns his own auto-glass company, is a responsible person who had been trying to cut back on his cigarette habit for the previous month or so by using electronic cigarettes (also called e-cigs or vapes).  Suddenly, in Sadeghy's words "It was like a firecracker.  It made the same exact noise.  A hissing sound and then burning sensation."  An e-cigarette in his pants pocket had exploded.  He suffered severe burns on his thigh which caused him to have difficulty walking, and was not able to return to work for three weeks following the accident. 

Sadeghy is one of dozens if not hundreds of people who have been affected by e-cigarette explosions.  Ironically, many people use e-cigarettes for the same reason Sadeghy did:  as a less harmful alternative to conventional smoking.  Although the jury is still out on the health hazards of e-cigarettes, there may be something to this idea.  But it changes the picture if every time you light up you're taking a chance that what you're smoking will turn into a pipe bomb.

The phenomenon of e-cigarettes showed up in the U. S. around 2007, and a 2015 poll showed that about 10% of U. S. adults now use the product at least occasionally. Vape shops have sprung up in many places, and most convenience stores carry them.  (Interestingly, the major tobacco companies dominate the convenience-store market channel.)  So if even a few hundred people have had their e-cigarette blow up on them, it is still a very rare occurrence, on the order of one incident per year for every 10,000 to 100,000 users.

Still, the tip of the injury iceberg of e-cigarettes is pretty grim, not to mention the property damage caused by fires.  A recent article on Buzzfeed shows graphic photos of Joseph Cavins, whose exploding e-cigarette destroyed one eye, and Thomas Boes, who lost three teeth in a disfiguring explosion from the same cause.  It's not clear whether such highly publicized stories are responsible for a recent slowdown in the growth of the e-cigarette market, but it's certainly possible.  It's well known that a few really exotic and gruesome accidents can cause more popular fear than a much larger number of less chilling mishaps.  This is why some people will get in a car without thinking but refuse to fly under any circumstances, even though the risk of accidents per mile traveled are much greater in automobiles.

A federal agency called the U. S. Fire Administration (USFA) did a study in 2014 of accidents and fires caused by e-cigarettes, and found that about four out of five happened during charging.  Most of the units use a universal-type USB connector to charge the lithium-ion battery that provides the power to heat the vaporizing element.  Unfortunately, this connector will fit pretty much any USB outlet, including power sources that were not designed to charge the particular battery that the e-cigarette uses.  The USFA thinks that most of the fires happened when the user tried to charge their unit with a power source not designed for it.

Lithium-ion batteries are nasty chemically, even when they are not enclosed in a cylindrical metal structure that unintentionally forms a pipe bomb.  The electrolyte is flammable.  If such a battery is charged too fast, it overheats, the liquid electrolyte vaporizes and breaches the battery case, and the thing catches fire.  The fire raises the pressure inside the metal tube of the e-cigarette, and here's where the pipe-bomb analogy comes in.  Small tubes can contain much higher pressures than other shapes, and so the tube doesn't give out on the sides.  Instead, the end cap or caps blow off, but only after the pressure has built up to an extremely high level.  When a cap lets go, the flaming electrolyte shoots it off with the force of a projectile and sprays itself all over whatever is nearby.  If the unit's being charged, that may be only things like flammable paper or wood. 

But in the fairly rare cases when the battery fails while in use, this sequence of dire events can go off in your face, with tragic and disfiguring results.  Properly designed and manufactured lithium-ion batteries don't explode spontaneously as they are charged or discharged, but the technology is being pushed pretty hard even when an e-cigarette operates normally.  A current of an amp or more is needed to heat the vaporizing element, and some counterfeit or shoddily made batteries can't handle that reliably and end up with an internal short due to overheating.  The result is pretty much the same as with overcharging:  electrolyte vaporizing and an explosion.

The Buzzfeed report says that the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is moving to regulate e-cigarettes, bringing them under the same regulatory umbrella as conventional tobacco products.  Their plan is to require sellers to apply for authorization to sell the units, with approval hinging on safety features such as overcharging protection circuitry.  Of course, this would make the units cost more, but the present situation that makes it easy to connect an e-cigarette to the wrong charger is clearly a bad one.

Fire has a way of showing up in the early stages of many electrical products.  For a few years I worked at a division of Motorola which made two-way radios for first responders, and learned something about the history of the company, which goes back to the early days of radios installed in automobiles around 1930.  Back then it seems that the company rushed some auto radios into production that were not sufficiently safety-tested, and the resulting burned-up cars nearly killed Motorola.  Fortunately, they figured out what was wrong and fixed it, and car radios became one of the company's mainstays for many years.

The vaping industry needs to clean up its safety act by changing the charging method so consumers can't accidentally make little time bombs by plugging an e-cigarette into the wrong charger.  This will require coordination among the dozens of largely Chinese e-cigarette makers that up to now are probably engaged in cut-throat competition, and may not happen unless the FDA imposes the requirement on them.  So it will be interesting to see what happens in that regard.  In the meantime, if you happen to be a vape-er (?), be sure to use only the charger that came with the unit.  And it might not be a bad idea to wear safety glasses while you smoke.

Sources:  I thank my wife for pointing out to me the article on Buzzfeed from which I learned of this problem, posted on May 26, 2016 at  
-->  I also referred to a vaping website called IEC where an (admittedly unscientific) survey of thirty e-cigarette accidents is reported at  This site refers to the USFA study, which is available at  Mr. Sadegh's story was reported by Fox News on June 30, 2015 at, and the statistic that about 10% of U. S. adults use e-cigarettes is from
Note added July 18, 2016:  A reader named Jason Artman read the above post and brought my attention to his website, where he is maintaining a comprehensive list of over 100 e-cigarette explosion incidents.  

Monday, May 23, 2016

EgyptAir Flight 804: Clues to a Tragedy

Early last Thursday morning, May 19, EgyptAir Flight 804, an Airbus A320 carrying 56 passengers and 10 crew members, went down in the Mediterranean on its way from France's Charles De Gaulle International Airport to Cairo.  The plane apparently broke up in the air and there are no survivors.  Search parties have begun to recover pieces of the wreckage, and data transmitted from the plane suggests that a bomb might have caused the crash.  But a definitive conclusion about the cause will have to await the recovery of the flight data recorders, if they can be found.

Generally speaking, commercial aviation safety has been a spectacular success story.  If you drive to the airport, the risky part of your journey is over once you park the car.  But determined terrorists can evade security measures to bring a plane down, and no amount of design improvements can make a modern airliner 100% secure against attacks.  In the case of Flight 804, we are fortunate to have information transmitted by the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) that has provided material for early speculation about the cause of the crash.

Within a day, a number of sources provided news media with ACARS data transmitted for a period of about two minutes around the time of the crash.  Two indicators associated with windows on the right side of the cockpit and several smoke alarms went off.  An aviation expert cited in The Telegraph (UK) speculated that a bomb in or near the right side of the cockpit could have blown out a window, and the resulting cabin depressurization at cruising altitude would have caused condensation fog that can set off smoke alarms.  As the plane broke up, the ACARS system could have kept working, which explains the length of time between the initial transmission and when communication was lost.

ACARS has been helpful in investigating other crashes, such as the Malaysian Air Flight 370 that went down over the Indian Ocean on Mar. 8, 2014.  Although numerous pieces of that plane have been recovered in widely separated locations, the underwater search for the main body of the aircraft continues to this day. 

The part of the Mediterranean over which EgyptAir Flight 804 went down includes some of its deepest waters, over 3000 meters (more than a mile) deep.  So it will be a challenge to find the flight data recorders, especially if the search takes longer than 30 days, which is about as long as the recorder underwater locator beacons operate. 

The continuing mystery of the Malaysian Air Flight 370 crash led to calls for live streaming of flight-recorder data in addition to hard-copy logging on the plane, and in the ACARS data that was recovered for the EgyptAir flight, we see that even in the absence of regulations requiring such streaming, airlines have begun to take advantage of digital communications channels to transmit data that can be helpful both for maintenance and in case of a crash.  Other improvements that could be made to flight-recorder technology include automatic ejection and flotation, as is already done for recorders on military aircraft.  Instead of sinking with the plane, military flight recorders are ejected during the crash and automatically deploy flotation devices which makes them much easier to locate on the water's surface.  Since national governments usually bear the burden of paying for underwater searches, you would think that they would see the logic in offering to reimburse airlines for the additional expense of military-style flight recorders.  But logic isn't the only consideration in international politics.

If the flight recorders and cockpit voice recorders are recovered, the question of whether the crash was deliberate will probably resolve itself pretty quickly.  If it was indeed a deliberate act, the question then becomes one of criminal investigation, and the security at De Gaulle International Airport will come under scrutiny.  As long as airliners are flown by human beings, the trustworthiness of the pilots is an essential link in the security chain.  Assuming the pilots were not themselves part of a conspiracy, that leaves the possibility that someone planted a bomb somewhere in the cockpit.  While cockpits are now typically sealed off from the rest of the plane during flight, it's possible that maintenance workers or others can get into them while a plane is on the ground.  The Telegraph reported that the short stopover in France may not have allowed security personnel enough time to give the plane a thorough going-over before it took off for Cairo.

Whatever the cause of the crash turns out to be, we will learn something from it.  If it was mechanical failure, which seems unlikely but is still possible, it may affect all A320 Airbuses out there, but if there is such a problem it hasn't shown up more than once, apparently.  If, as seems more likely, there was a deliberate act of sabotage, the technique used by the saboteurs will have to be guarded against in the future. 

Either way, sixty-six lives have been lost in what was in all probability an avoidable tragedy.  Most of the time, the vastly complex systems of design engineering, maintenance, operations, and security for air travel work essentially perfectly, and when we get on a plane we don't usually give much thought to the question of whether we'll be getting off  under our own power or not.  But the price of such liberty is eternal vigilance, and I hope the lessons eventually learned from this tragedy make future ones even less likely.

Sources:  I referred to reports from at and The Telegraph (UK) at, as well as the Wikipedia articles on Aircraft Communications and Addressing System, flight recorders, and Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

Monday, May 16, 2016

ATF Says West Explosion Deliberately Set

In an announcement last Wednesday, Robert Elder, Special Agent in Charge of the Houston Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, announced his agency's finding that the explosion of Apr. 17, 2013 of a fertilizer storage facility in West, Texas was a "criminal act."  The agency has offered a $50,000 reward to anyone having information that leads to the arrest and conviction of those responsible.  No other details of the investigation's findings were released, but ATF says it has done over 400 interviews leading up to their determination that somebody deliberately set the fire that led to the explosion.

This bit of news raises more questions than it answers, not all of them technical ones.  But we can ask some technical ones for starters.

The explosion itself was so violent that it showed up on seismometers hundreds of miles away, left a crater over 90 feet (27 meters) wide, and scattered debris and other evidence for miles around, besides killing 15 people and injuring about 160.  How anybody could find enough evidence to conclude it was a deliberate act of arson is a good question.  But the ATF people are apparently well experienced and equipped to do that.  Unless and until their evidence comes out in a criminal trial, it's not possible to comment on the quality or quantity of their research and investigations.  But their findings are consistent with the conclusions of the U. S. Chemical Safety Hazard and Investigation Board, which released its final report on the explosion in January of this year.  In it, the Board stated that one possible cause of the fire was that it was intentionally set, although there were other possibilities as well.

If the West explosion turns out to be deliberately set, that does not reduce the need for fertilizer plants to store ammonium nitrate more safely.  (Ammonium nitrate was the fertilizer material that detonated at West and caused so much damage.)  A representative of the Texas Ag Industries Association made the news in April of 2015 by saying that until a definite cause for the explosion could be identified, there was no need to issue new regulations for the storage of ammonium nitrate.  One hopes that now the ATF has apparently determined a definite cause, the Texas Ag Industries Association will reconsider its stance, even if it is nothing more than increasing security around existing fertilizer plants.

To those who lost loved ones or were injured or lost property in the explosion, the news that the fire was intentional can only cause more grief.  We can only speculate about the motives of the perpetrator, although an ATF spokesman has ruled out terrorism as a motive.  If the arsonist knew that the ammonium nitrate stored at the plant was likely to explode, the culpability in the case is compounded, but in any case, I hope that if the culprit is still around to be found, that justice can be served.  I say that in the unlikely event that the person who set the fire was also a first responder who was killed in the explosion.

Such a situation is not unheard of, as the case of John Leonard Orr shows.  Orr was a fire captain and arson investigator in Glendale, California in the 1980s.  Following a series of suspicious fires, in 1991 a fingerprint recovered from one of the fires was found to match Orr's, and he was tried and convicted on three counts of arson.  Partly because two children died in one of the fires Orr allegedly set, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

I also hope that the ATF's body of evidence will withstand scrutiny in a court of law.  With a special Maryland fire-investigation lab, the ATF is probably the cream of the fire-investigator crop in the U. S.  But not all fire investigations are equal, and there have been cases where people have been convicted of arson with evidence that was later shown to be shoddy and insubstantial, as a 2009 New Yorker article by David Grann called "Trial By Fire" described.  In that case, a man named Todd Willingham was convicted of arson in a Corsicana, Texas fire that claimed the lives of his three children.  After he was executed the arson evidence was re-examined by experts, one of whom said that the original investigation was more "characteristic of mystics or psychics" than of modern scientific methods. 

After all the time and effort spent on the West investigation, we can be fairly sure that the ATF would not conclude that the explosion resulted from a deliberate act unless they have strong and convincing evidence.  I'm sure the residents of West are eager to hear the details of the ATF's findings, which I hope will be released in due time.  But I'm sorry that after all the suffering those folks have had to go through, they now have to deal with the real possibility that someone, somewhere intended for the West explosion to happen.

Sources:  This news was reported in various sources, and in particular a Houston Chronicle article by  Mark Collette at to which I referred.  A video of the news conference at which Robert Elder announced the ATF's findings was posted by the Dallas Morning News at  The ATF's announcement of a reward in connection with the explosion can be found at  I referred to the U. S. Chemical Safety Hazard and Investigation Board's final report on the explosion at  I also referred to the New Yorker website version of the article "Trial by Fire" at and the Wikipedia articles on the West Fertilizer Company explosion and John Leonard Orr. 

Monday, May 09, 2016

A Test Case For How To Lower Carbon Emissions: Texas

No, I haven't gone off my nut with blind patriotism toward my native state.  Yes, I know that ex-governor Rick Perry said in 2014, "Calling CO2 a pollutant is doing a disservice [to] the country, and I believe a disservice to the world."  But the fact of the matter is that Texas has the most installed wind-generation capacity of any state, more even than California, and shows no signs of turning back.  How we got here is a lesson in the effects of government regulation, and shows that sometimes less is more.

In an Associated Press article, reporter Michael Biesecker points out the irony that three of the leading wind-generation states—Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas—are also home to state and federal lawmakers who have been the most critical of climate-change ideas and most supportive of fossil fuel businesses such as oil and coal.  He shows that in both 2014 and 2015, U. S. utilities spent more money installing renewable-energy sources such as wind and solar than they did building fossil-fueled power plants.  And the fossil-fuel plants they did build mostly burn natural gas, which contributes less to the carbon-dioxide burden of the atmosphere than coal does.  The fact that natural gas is so popular is largely because it's cheaper these days, and that's because the largely Texas-based oil-and-gas-extraction industry figured out how to do fracking, which has made more natural gas available now than we've had for a long time. 

A few years ago we were hearing calls for carbon taxes, heavy regulation of fossil-fuel industries, and draconian mandates for Federal- and state-funded renewable energy projects imposed from Washington and other centers of governmental power.  Largely because Washington has been gridlocked for the last five or six years, no significant Federal laws were passed, although the Obama administration has done what it could through executive actions in those directions. 

Meanwhile, in Texas we enjoy some peculiar advantages when it comes to doing new things with electric power.  Because years ago, Texas refused to interconnect in a major way with the electric grids in the rest of the country, most of the state gets power from an entity called ERCOT—the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.  Both physically and legally, ERCOT is independent from both the rest of the U. S. power grid and from the tangle of regulatory requirements that the rest of the country has to deal with whenever a power utility wants to do something different.  

As Kyle Downey points out in an article at, this freedom from outside utility regulations has allowed Texas to pass innovative laws such as the Renewable Portfolio Standard in 1999, which created mandates and funded incentives for utilities to develop renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.  Modified over the years and threatened with repeal but never revoked, the Standard has succeeded beyond most people's expectations.  From barely 1,000 MW of installed wind-generation capacity in 2002, wind power has grown to the extent that about ten percent of all power produced in the state is generated by wind farms—some 17,000 MW as of 2015.   Many Texas utility customers can choose to "buy" only wind power through a trading system that gives choices of sources and pricing plans, and this has also allowed private individuals to vote for wind power with their wallets, rather than much more indirectly at the ballot box. 

The other factor Downey mentions that has made Texas a wind-power leader is that we have a lot of land in the Panhandle where the wind blows steadily almost all the time, and even conveniently gets stronger at night when other renewables such as solar conk out.  That everlasting wind on the prairie that early settlers often found so annoying is finally turning out to be a money-making asset.  The state has also provided a fund to connect the remote wind-generation farms to the demand centers in populated areas of the eastern and central part of the state with transmission lines, an essential ingredient of the process that legislatures often overlook when planning renewable-energy futures for their constituents.  Overall, the wind-power picture has never looked brighter in Texas, and there are more wind farms yet to be built.  One study has shown that even without government incentives, building a wind farm is now the cheapest way to install new generating capacity—even cheaper than fossil-fuel plants.

What are the implications of this story for the current debate over carbon emissions and global climate change?  For one thing, it tells me that predicting what people are going to do is hard, unless you restrict them with so many regulations that they don't have much choice.  Few forecasters a decade ago would have foreseen the U. S. getting to a point where it is nearly independent of oil imports, as we are now.  And even I thought that when certain wind-power subsidies came to an end, that the bottom would fall out of wind-generation growth in Texas.  I was wrong, obviously, and not for the first time. 

On a personal level, much of what an individual worries about does not in fact come to pass.  Something like this may be the case with carbon emissions.  In researching this article, I came across a chart showing that in 2013, China built more wind-generating power plant capacity than nuclear-powered plants.  China is still one of the world's largest offenders when it comes to carbon emission because of its huge number of coal-fired power plants, but it is an encouraging sign that even a highly autocratic government such as China's recognizes the good sense in encouraging renewable energy sources. 

All that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere isn't going to go away overnight, and we will be dealing with the consequences of burning fossil fuels, whatever they turn out to be, for many decades.  But those who would like to empower a world government with the means of forcing people to quit burning fossil fuels should take a look at Texas, where climate-change deniers are happily building wind farms, making money, and thumbing their noses at regulators who are everywhere else but in Texas.  It's paradoxical, but it seems to work.

Sources:  The AP article by Michael Biesecker on how conservative states are leading the renewable-energy drive was carried by numerous outlets and is available on the U. S. News & World Report website at  Kyle Downey's article "The Mystery of Wind Energy in Texas" is at  Rick Perry's quotation is from and the article about wind energy in China is at

Monday, May 02, 2016

Smart Guns and the Law

Last Friday, President Obama announced a series of actions aimed at making smart guns a reality, rather than a lab curiosity that has never gotten beyond the demonstration stage.  A smart gun is one that in principle can be used only by its authorized owner.  If we had a magic smart-gun-making wand that we could wave and thereby grant the beneficences of intelligence and the moral judgment of St. Thomas Aquinas to every gun in the U. S., well, I suppose we would no longer have to worry about any gun being wrongly used ever again.  But that would require that guns have more smarts and judgment than the owners, and nobody's expecting the technology to go that far.  Even if the technology worked perfectly, it's easy to see that smart guns would eliminate only a fraction of the accidental and intentional shootings that gun regulations are intended to reduce, because no gun can tell whether its owner is using it for good or bad purposes.  And you can rest assured that if the only kinds of guns available were smart guns, that's the kind that criminals would use. 

Admittedly, accidental shootings such as the ones involving small children are the most tragic and unnecessary ones.  And almost any kind of smart-gun technology would go far to prevent gun accidents involving children who gain access to guns.  But this kind of accident is a small proportion of the annual gun-fatality roll in the United States, making up less than 5% of the 12,000 or so gun-related deaths in 2014. 

The President has stopped short of measures that would put the purchasing power of the federal government in play.  Without any enabling legislation, for example, he could have mandated that all future gun purchases by the U. S. government would be smart guns only.  He probably realized that such a mandate would seriously handicap the FBI and other federal domestic law-enforcement personnel, because right now, there is no generally available smart-gun technology, because basically, nobody wants to buy one.

Anytime U. S. gun laws are discussed, the National Rifle Association has to be considered.  The NRA's official position is that they do not oppose smart-gun technology per se, but do not want it mandated by legal fiat.  Instead, the NRA prefers to let market forces lead the technological development.  This is a little bit like saying, "Let the market decide how many Ferraris we should make with speed-control governors keeping them from exceeding a speed of 60 miles an hour (100 km/hr)."  The whole point of buying a Ferrari is to be able to go fast, and the NRA knows very well that if the matter is left to the market, the market will go on rejecting the idea of smart guns, as it has for the last twenty-five years or more. 

There are two main reasons that smart guns and smart-gun laws have not proved popular:  one pertaining to the technology itself, and the other having to do with the legislators who would have to make the smart-gun laws.

The technological reason is that none of the dozen or more different approaches to making smart guns seems to work very well.  Some of them use biometric sensors—these are not yet advanced enough to be used for routine computer-ID purposes.  And a law-enforcement officer wants a gun that's at least as reliable as getting money out of an ATM.  Others depend on the user wearing some kind of wireless ID bracelet or RFID chip.  Well, gosh, what if you leave it at home with your other pair of trousers?  Or what if the crooks figure out a way to jam the RFID chip (that's not hard, incidentally)?  And so on.  Every single smart-gun technology idea has some potential for failure, which adds to the chances that a gun won't be usable when it's most needed.  To most potential gun purchasers, the incremental value added of knowing that unauthorized users can't fire the gun is not worth the complications of carrying around an RFID bracelet or hoping that your gun will recognize you despite your recent haircut, or whatever means it uses.

The second reason that most gun owners (and in reality, the NRA) detest the idea of smart-gun legislation is pointed out ably by Jon Stokes, a blogger at  It turns out that the legislators who are most enthusiastic about gun regulation tend to know the least about guns.  He cites the example of the 1994 Federal legislation banning "assault weapons."  Now in order to ban something, you have to have at least a vague idea of what it is you're banning.  So the law had a kind of laundry list of features that made a gun an assault weapon, including such things as a vertical foregrip.  This is a kind of stick-like doohickey that extends down from the middle or so of the barrel and gives you something to do with your non-trigger hand.  The presence of that one little optional feature made the gun an assault weapon, and ipso facto illegal.  The 1994 law has been superseded since then, but Stokes points out that any smart-gun law will face the same problem:  what makes a gun smart?  What design features specifically qualify it to be a smart gun?  And inevitably, the lawmakers will be forced into the nitty-gritty of gun design, for which activity they are dubiously qualified at best.  

Guns have a special place in the American psyche.  Here in Texas, they are part of the culture to a degree that is unimaginable in San Francisco or Boston, and while I do not personally have any truck with guns, I have several friends who do own and use them responsibly.  Maybe the fact that President Obama is directing more federal R&D funds to the problem will uncover a single technology that will make smart guns as easy and reliable to use as the "safety" that keeps a gun from going off when set that way by the user, and which has been a standard feature of many firearms since at least 1911.  And maybe state or federal legislators will educate themselves enough on how guns really work and are used to pick the best smart-gun technology to require gunmakers to install.  But right now, I'm not seeing a lot of speed-controlled Ferraris on the road, and I would not risk a bet on smart-gun legislation getting very far any time soon.

Sources:  The New York Times and many other news outlets covered President Obama's announcement on Apr. 29 concerning smart guns at  I also referred to an article on Fox News at  The White House website carried a statement coordinated with the announcement at  Jon Stokes' piece "Why the NRT hates smart guns" is on Techcrunch at  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on smart guns and "Safety (firearms)."  The gun-fatality statistic is from