Did A Power Bank Explode & Kill Blandine?

The Internet is abuzz with news of a power bank exploding and killing a young Ghanaian girl on the 25th of May, 2015. After the graphic picture of her body was posted online, Internet sleuths identified her as Blandine from Accra, Ghana.

Did A Power Bank Explode & Kill Blandine?
This is a photo of Blandine, purportedly from her Facebook account

According to various reports pieced together, here is the sequence of events that led to her untimely death:

  1. On the night of the 25th of May, Blandine was chatting with her friend on her mobile phone during one of Ghana’s rolling blackouts (popularly known as dumsor).
  2. As the power was out, she kept her mobile phone connected to a power bank, while she talked.
  3. The power bank was connected to a power point (presumably using a USB charger), so that it would automatically recharge itself when the power came back on.
  4. Blandine then fell asleep and left the power bank lying on her upper chest.
  5. Sometime during the night, power was restored to her area.
  6. The surge of electrical power “overheated” the power bank which burned her skin and then “electrocuted” her to death.

A few reports pointed to the “metal” casing of the power bank as a cause of her electrocution. But is that really plausible for Blandine to be killed by a power bank?

Originally posted @ 2015-05-26

Updated @ 2016-03-29 : Added more details on the case, particularly on the possibility of drugs being a factor in this tragedy.

Updated @ 2016-10-029 : Improved the article, particularly in the plausible events leading to her death. Also added a GIF of lithium-ion batteries exploding during thermal runaway events.

 

Was Blandine Really Killed By A Power Bank?

The uncensored photo appears to be genuine, although we haven’t had the time to check if it has been tampered with. Even if it’s proven to be unedited or Photoshopped, it could possibly be a staged photo.

Did A Power Bank Explode & Kill Blandine?

Unfortunately, we cannot find any credible reporting by any mainstream media on this case, which is quite surprising since it is a truly bizarre case. So we will have to peg this as PLAUSIBLE.

 

Why Is This Plausible?

We should never decide if something is plausible merely on gut feeling. There should be a scientific basis… a logical hypothesis, if you will, for how such a tragedy can be possible. For that, I enlisted the help of Syafiq Yusof, who has a Masters in Electrical Engineering.

According to Syafiq, electrocution is unlikely to be the cause of death, because power banks don’t have circuitry that operate at more than 12 V. In addition, the USB standard requires the circuitry to fuse when the current exceeds 500 mA (USB 2.0) or 950 mA (USB 3.0).

Of course, many power banks now do away with these limits, and allow current draw of up to 1,500 mA at 5 V. Even so, that is just 7.5 W of power.

The USB charger that is used to recharge the power bank isn’t much more powerful. It is limited to a voltage of just 5 V, with a current draw of up to 2 A. That’s just 10 W of power. Plenty of juice to recharge our devices or the power bank, but not enough to kill us. At least, not in such a dramatic fashion.

The most plausible hypothesis is that a power surge (from a malfunctioning USB charger, for example) or a circuit failure in the power bank caused a short circuit of the lithium-ion cells inside, leading to a thermal runaway and fire.

Lithium ion batteries exploding during thermal runaway events
Lithium ion batteries exploding during thermal runaway events | Credit : University College London

This happens very quickly with lithium-ion cells, due to their low internal resistance and the reactivity of lithium. This is very plausible with the nondescript power bank she appears to be using – internal circuit protection is notoriously shady in cheaper power banks.

Such an event would explain the extensive 4th degree burns Blandine suffered under and around the power bank. Note too the burn marks that roughly followed the path of the USB cable. That wouldn’t happen with an electrocution, because the USB cable is insulated.

There also appeared to be a single point of injury, rather than the usual two points required for electrocution. In fact, unless high voltage and current are involved, death by electrocution is relatively clean, with little tissue damage.

 

Why Didn’t Blandine Realise It Was On Fire?

We don’t know for sure, if this is genuine and not a staged photo to troll the Internet. We certainly don’t have enough “facts” to know why Blandine would even place a power bank on her chest, much less why she didn’t realise it was overheating.

But assuming this tragedy really happened, we can hypothetically posit several possibilities :

  • the thermal runaway happened extremely quickly, that she didn’t have time to wake from her sleep.
  • she may have taken medication that would have slowed her reaction or prevented her from waking up.
  • she may have passed out from the prior consumption of alcohol or drugs. Note the white smears on her nose and upper lip.

Of course, these are just our educated guesses. Your guess is as good as ours. The only thing that will confirm the true cause of death would be a pathology report.

 

How Do I Avoid Getting Killed By A Power Bank?

If the answer isn’t obvious enough, you should never leave a charging power bank lying on your body while you sleep! There is virtually no reason to do this. And with the exception of Blandine (if this is not a hoax), you won’t find another case like this because people don’t sleep with a power bank lying on them!

It would also be a good idea to keep any device powered by lithium-ion batteries away from flammable materials, especially when they are being recharged. Lithium-ion batteries are prone to produce a spectacular explosion and fire during a thermal runaway event, which is why it is so important to purchase quality products that have good safety mechanisms built-in.

That leads us to our final piece of advice – buy quality products. This is important when it comes to devices powered by lithium-ion batteries. These batteries are temperamental, compared to NiMH or NiCad batteries. So it pays to invest in quality products because they will have proper safety mechanisms built-in against over-voltage, over-current, over-charging, over-discharge and short circuits.

 

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