A unique invention that tackles lithium-ion battery fires on board planes has been given the Royal seal of approval.

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

Managing director Richard Bailey and sales director Richard Nikolic were invited to an official reception at Buckingham Palace to honour companies which have won the highly prestigious award and met Prince Charles.

Richard Nikolic said: “The Prince was so down to earth and took a real interest in what we are doing to make flying safer.”

Richard Bailey added: “It was a wonderful occasion and a great chance to discover just how many highly innovative companies we have in the UK.

“Many are world leaders in what they do and shows there is great hope for the future whatever challenges we face from Brexit.”

The AvSax bag is used to deal with lithium-ion battery fires in electronic equipment taken on board aircraft by passengers, is in use with more than 50 airline companies including some major carriers and was deployed 27 times to deal with emergencies in 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 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.

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.

* Here’s how 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.