What’s Next in Lithium Battery Regulations?

Posted on 8/17/2015 by Roger Marks

Now that US DOT’s new hazmat shipping regulations for lithium batteries are in full effect, lithium battery manufacturers and shippers look toward an uncertain future. Lithium batteries pose unique hazards in transit, especially by air—if they short circuit during transportation, they can enter what’s called “thermal runaway”—when a battery short-circuits, causing rising temperatures that accelerate the cell’s chemical reaction rate. As the reaction rate increases, more heat is produced, adding to extreme temperatures and leading to fires, venting of gases, and even explosions.

Read more about how lithium batteries become a workplace and transportation hazard.

As regulators and industry groups work together to promulgate new, more stringent lithium battery regulations, US battery shippers should stay aware of the latest developments and expect any new international standards to affect their shipments in the near future.

Lithium battery button cell

ICAO Working Group on Lithium Batteries

An International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Dangerous Goods working group referenced in the PRBA statement was held from April 27 to May 1, 2015 in Montreal. The panel of experts—which included representatives from the International Coordinating Council of Aerospace Industries Associations (ICCAIA), the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations (IFALPA), IATA, ICAO, DGAC, and more—raised the following major concerns related to lithium battery hazards:
  • Current lithium battery packaging required by ICAO TI is unable to contain or prevent the spread of a lithium battery fire
  • Potential for an uncontrolled lithium battery fire to overwhelm the capabilities of aircraft cargo fire protection systems
  • New Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) test results that demonstrate the potential for electrolyte gases to create an explosive atmosphere in an enclosed space (like a cargo compartment)
PRBA Statement on Future of Lithium Batteries Rules

In a statement released August 10, 2015, George Kerchner, Executive Director of PRBA, the Portable Rechargeable Battery Association, announced that a broad framework for performance-based lithium battery shipping standard was developed during the ICAO working group. Kerchner states that PRBA looks forward to participating in the upcoming October ICAO Dangerous Goods Panel to help hash out performance standards and other matters regarding the transport of lithium batteries by air.

The statement signals that industry groups and international regulators both recognize the unique hazards posed by lithium batteries, especially in air transit, and are working together toward new safety standards.

Possible Outcomes for Lithium Battery Shippers

Discussions are ongoing between international regulators, trade associations, and industry groups to improve the packaging and transport standards for lithium battery shipments. Changes to look for could include more stringent cargo restrictions for air carriers, further limits on bulk shipments of lithium batteries by air, and new packaging standards for lithium batteries.

If and when ICAO adopts new standards for air shipments of lithium batteries, the latest rules will be included in the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Dangerous Goods Regulations, or DGR, the manual followed by hazmat air shippers and most major airlines. IATA publishes a new edition of its DGR every fall, and January 1 marks the start of mandatory compliance with the latest edition.

US DOT also adopts rules from UN standards groups like ICAO in order to harmonize domestic shipping standards with the international rules.

Even without new standards from ICAO, air carriers concerned about the fire hazard posed by lithium batteries in flight may choose to prohibit the batteries aboard their passenger or even cargo planes. Operator variations for lithium batteries, already in place for some major airlines, appear in the IATA DGR as well. Obviously, outright bans or strict prohibitions on transport have the potential to slow the lithium battery supply chain or limit lithium battery shipments to highway, rail, and vessel transit.

The Next ICAO Dangerous Goods Panel

The ICAO Dangerous Goods Panel is set to meet in October 2015 in Montreal. The meeting will address many hazmat air shipping issues, with lithium batteries sure to be a big part of the discussion. During this panel, final amendments will be slated for inclusion in the 2017-18 ICAO Technical Instructions (TI). For air shippers, new rules in the TI will find their way into the IATA DGR, either in the upcoming 57th edition or a later publication. New ICAO standards will also undoubtedly impact any future US DOT rules for domestic lithium battery shipments.

Expert Training on New Lithium Battery Rules

Learn the latest rules and fulfill the DOT, IATA, and IMO training requirements for shipping lithium batteries by ground, air, and vessel with the interactive Shipping Lithium Batteries Online Course. Complete your certification training at your own pace, from any Internet connection, 24/7, and get help from IT customer support 7 days a week.

Tags: hazmat shipping, IATA, lithium batteries, new rules

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