(VIDEO) Why Do Lithium Batteries Burn?

Posted on 7/19/2021 by Roseanne Bottone

In April 2021, three pallets of lithium-ion powered mobile phones caught fire at Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA). Responders spent 40 minutes extinguishing the fire. You may have even seen video of the incident.

The lithium battery fire prompted Hong Kong Air Cargo to prohibit shipments from two local air freight companies, their co-loaders, and institute a full ban on the brand of phones involved.
Lithium-ion cells– the type of rechargeable battery used in cell phones, digital cameras, and laptops—become thermally unstable at high temperatures, which can lead to “thermal runaway” in which flaming gases are vented.

“Thermal runaway” means the high heat of one failing cell causes a chain reaction of thermal instability. Sometimes this reaction can happen in a matter of milliseconds and, at other times, the runaway mechanism can progress over minutes or hours as each cell is individually affected.

FAA Lithium Battery Incident Reports

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) collects data on events with smoke, fire, extreme heat, or explosion involving lithium batteries.

DOT requires notice, either by phone or online, for any incident during transportation by aircraft involving a fire, violent rupture, explosion, or dangerous evolution of heat that occurs as a direct result of a battery or battery-powered device. They also collect written follow-up reports on DOT Form F5800.1.

These events sometimes occur in transportation because bad actors ignore safety regulations and introduce lithium batteries into the supply chain that are untested, undeclared, and/or improperly packaged or even improperly manufactured.

Other times, a lithium battery incident involving thermal runaway can be triggered by external events. FAA’s Lithium Battery Incident Chart shows that recent lithium battery fires occurred when packages were dropped, run over by equipment, and stabbed with a forklift, among other accidental causes.    

What Starts a Lithium Battery Fire?

An unscientific review of hazmat incident reports involving lithium batteries provides us with a list of circumstances that frequently precede a fire.  

Typical triggers for lithium battery fires include:
  • Rough handling – jostling and drops;
  • Short circuits – from damage, improper storage, or metal dust from manufacturing standards;
  • Overheating – extreme temperatures in cargo holds, on tarmacs, or at loading dock;
  • Humid and wet conditions – Rainwater (especially combined with salty air) can cause short circuits and lead to thermal runaway even if the battery has not been damaged; and
  • Physical damage from shredding and dismantling during recycling operations.
Shippers can only control so much. But by understanding and correctly applying the requirements for safely shipping lithium batteries, shippers do their part to ensure products reach their destination without incident.

(VIDEO) Why Do Lithium Batteries Burn?

Compliance Keeps Lithium Batteries Moving Safely 

Fortunately for travelers and airline personnel, the viral lithium battery fire in Hong Kong happened outside of a plane, on the tarmac, and no injuries were recorded.

It is generally safe to ship lithium batteries in compliance with domestic and international regulations for ground, air, and vessel transport. But before offering lithium batteries into the supply chain, it is imperative for shippers to thoroughly train their hazmat employees to understand the importance of properly packaging these shipments and the gravity of a fire in transportation.

While extreme events involving lithium batteries are rare, they can be catastrophic—especially if they occur during air transport. 

Shipping Lithium Batteries Training

Ship lithium batteries? Whether you ship batteries alone, in equipment, or with equipment–by ground, air, or vessel–be confident you know the latest US and international regulations that apply to your shipments.

The Shipping Lithium Batteries online course guides shippers through Lion's 10 Step© process to offer lithium batteries for transportation in full compliance with 49 CFR, IATA DGR, and IMDG Code requirements.  

Tags: hazmat shipping, lithium batteries

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