To the rescue: Can lithium batteries be made safe for flight?

lithium ion battery suppliers in china

On Sept. 3, 2010, a UPS 747-400 cargo aircraft took off from Dubai, headed to the UPS hub in Cologne-Bonn. It crashed shortly after taking off, killing the two crew members on board. Three years later, the United Arab Emirates General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) concluded that the cause of the crash, a fire on board the aircraft, was started on the cargo deck. The UAE GCAA report stated that the fire began in the section of the cargo that included a “significant number of lithium type batteries and other combustible materials, and that the fire escalated rapidly into a catastrophic, uncontained fire.”

The UAE GCAA report on the UPS crash said “lithium batteries have a history of thermal runaway and fire, are unstable when damaged and can short circuit if exposed to overcharging. Once a battery is in thermal runaway it cannot be extinguished with the types of extinguishing agent used on board aircraft and the potential for auto ignition of adjacent combustible material exists.” (See sidebar, p. 32)

Malfunctioning lithium batteries were also the reason for the temporary grounding of the entire fleet of 787 Dreamliners in January 2013. After five incidents in five days, involving either the batteries or the electrical systems on 787s, All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines (the biggest 787 operators at the time) voluntarily grounded their fleets, and soon aviation regulators worldwide made 787 groundings mandatory, until the problem was understood and resolved.

The result of these, and other, incidents is that today more than 18 carriers have banned the bulk transport of lithium batteries as belly cargo on passenger planes, and some have banned the cells on all shipments, including freighters. Passengers can still carry lithium battery-powered devices, such as laptop computers and cell phones, with them on board; but bulk shipments, capable of causing catastrophic fires, are increasingly unwelcome.

Plane-makers and rule-makers apparently agree. In May of this year, the U.S. FAA issued a statement that said current fire-suppression systems on aircraft are unable to suppress or extinguish a fire involving a significant load of the batteries. Two months later, Boeing followed up with a warning to its customers that flying bulk shipments of the batteries can cause fires capable of destroying large aircraft. Then, in mid-October, the FAA stepped up its warning, saying that it would support a proposed international ban on shipments of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries as cargo on all passenger planes. Angela Stubblefield, FAA’s hazardous materials safety official, said the risk of battery-related fires is “immediate and urgent,” potentially affecting 26 million passengers on flights to and from the U.S. each year.

At the same time, lithium batteries are a crucial component in almost all of the electronic devices we use for work and play, and those devices are traditionally shipped by air. According to the Rechargeable Battery Association, 6 billion lithium-ion cells will be manufactured this year, amounting to a US$16 billion dollar business today. How likely is it that carriers will refuse to take battery shipments, or that more stringent regulations will be imposed? And what will be the impact on the manufacturers, shippers and forwarders who now depend on air shipment of both parts and completed products in the electronics supply chain? Is there a technological solution to this problem?

 The effect on forwarders

Bassil Eid with FIATA (the International Federation of Freight Forwarders Associations) said the organization’s members have experienced reluctance among air carriers to accept battery shipments, even when cargo to be tendered is fully compliant with current dangerous goods regulations. He acknowledged that some carriers won’t accept such shipments.

“Thousands of dangerous-goods shipments are transported safely every day, and the experts are focused on ensuring the standards set for the transport of lithium batteries are fit for purpose,” Eid said. “FIATA works in this area to raise awareness on dangerous goods regulation for the transport of lithium batteries.” He said FIATA plans to offer an online lithium batteries course in conjunction with the Canadian International Freight Forwarders Association.

For Panalpina, airline bans have reduced available cargo space for shipments of lithium batteries, although they have had only a limited impact on the company. “Since we have one of the world’s most comprehensive end-to-end networks for the safe handling, storage and transport of hazardous air freight, we are in a favorable position to offer safe solutions, even if regulations should get stricter,” said Sandro Hofer, media relations manager for Panalapina.

He said Panalpina ships lithium-ion batteries both on passenger aircraft and freighters, including its own network. “The choice of aircraft and carrier depends on the specific cargo requirements, route, service and rate. We only work with carefully selected carriers that meet our exacting performance, service-quality and safety requirements. Panalpina staff is trained according to the IATA dangerous goods regulations.” All battery shipments, he added, are checked for full compliance with regulations from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and International Air Transport Association (IATA), including state- and carrier specific limitations. He even said that Panalpina would welcome any additional regulations.

But George Kerchner, the executive director of the Rechargeable Battery Association, said the ban by carriers is having a big impact on the industry, particularly to parts of the world that are not accepting cargo aircraft because shipments must instead go in the belly hold of passenger aircraft. “This impacts battery manufacturers and airlines [that] carry them,” Kerchner said. “We’re working with various carriers to address the issue. It’s a very big market, and it’s growing.”

Kerchner pointed out that most of the batteries are manufactured in Asia, and some are shipped by sea. However, in addition to the small batteries powering your iPhone or tablet, some lithium-ion batteries used for powering electric vehicles are quite large. He said one indication that this market is growing is Tesla is building a factory in Reno, Nev., for its electric cars.