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Woman’s Headphones Explode During Flight From China to Australia

During a flight from Beijing, China, to Melbourne, Australia, a passenger was sleeping when suddenly her face began to feel hot.

About two hours into the flight, the woman's headphones exploded, burning her face and singeing her hair, according to a press release published on Tuesday by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.

"As I went to turn around I felt burning on my face. I just grabbed my face which caused the headphones to go around my neck," the unidentified woman said in a statement. "I continued to feel burning so I grabbed them off and threw them on the floor. They were sparking and had small amounts of fire."

Images show the woman's cheek and lips covered in soot and charred pieces of hair along the top of her head.

Woman's Headphones Explode During Flight From China to Australia 1:29

The press release says flight attendants were already pouring water on the headphones before the woman could begin stamping the fire out.

The other passengers were "coughing and choking" for the remainder of the trip due to the smell of melted plastic filling the cabin.

An assessment of the incident by the ATSB found that batteries were likely the cause of the fire. The brand of headphones was not released. In a comment posted on its Facebook, the ATSB suggested lithium-ion batteries, which have a history of catching fire, were behind the explosion.

Donald Robert Sadoway, who is the John F. Elliott Professor of Materials Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he suspects the headphones were plugged into a power source.

"I don't expect that these were wireless headphones," Sadoway told NBC News. "If they're both plugged in taking audio and a current, my suspicion is there was a malfunction in the electronics."

Related: What's Causing Some E-Cigarette Batteries to Explode?

Sadoway said it's possible the voltage of the power generator on the plane got too high for the woman's device, causing the malfunction. He said the situation is reminiscent of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7.

Image: A passenger was burned after the battery exploded while she was using battery-operated headphones on a flight
A passenger was burned after the battery exploded while she was using battery-operated headphones on a flight from Beijing to Melbourne. Australian Transport Safety Bureau

"When I looked at what was happening with Samsung, it seemed to me those phones were catching fire when they were plugged in and being charged. That means current into battery is driving some other reaction that ultimately leads to fire," he said.

Lithium-ion batteries are great, Sadoway said, because they have a high-energy density — which is also what makes it volatile and flammable.

"When it functions properly it's fine, but when it malfunctions it's got all the ingredients for ignition and full-blown fire," Sadoway said.

Related: How Do Samsung Galaxy Note 7 Phone Batteries Explode?

The ATSB suggests keeping devices with lithium-ion batteries stowed properly when not in use and not putting the devices in checked baggage, where they cannot be accessed during the trip.

But when it comes to preventative measures and how people can protect against future lithium-ion battery malfunctions, Sadoway says there's not much to be done.

"As Clint Eastwood said, the question you've got to ask yourself is: 'Do you feel lucky?'" Sadoway said.