Pre-ICAO Meeting on Lithium Battery Air Safety

Posted on 9/23/2015 by James Griffin

On Friday, September 18, 2015, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) held a public meeting to address issues of lithium battery air transport safety. The meeting was scheduled in part to help US regulators prepare for the upcoming ICAO Dangerous Goods Panel in Montreal next month, at which lithium batteries will be a major topic of discussion.

The major threat posed by lithium batteries, especially in air transit, is the risk of “thermal runaway.” Simply put, thermal runaway occurs when the battery creates heat, which in turn speeds up the chemical reaction rate within the battery, which creates more heat, forming an uncontrolled feedback loop. Thermal runaway can generate toxic and explosive gas and result in fire, explosions, and projectile hazards.

A recent alert from Boeing to major air carriers states that fire suppression systems on current model airplanes are inadequate to control or mitigate a fire caused by a large consignment of lithium batteries.

lithium batteries are Dangerous goods under US and IATA rules

Proposals Discussed at the Pre-ICAO Meeting

During the meeting, five sets of proposals for mitigating the hazards of lithium batteries on planes were discussed:
  • Increased performance-based standards for packagings shipping batteries
  • Increased safety features and equipment in planes
  • Mandating that batteries be shipped in a reduced state-of-charge
  • Prohibiting lithium batteries (shipped separately, not in or with equipment) from transport aboard passenger aircraft without approval
  • Eliminating exclusions from regulation for batteries shipped by air
Bolstered Packaging Standards for Lithium Batteries

In response to this proposal, a representative from a packaging manufacturer stated that performance-based standards for fire-resistant packagings for lithium batteries, in excess of existing DOT and UN standards, would lead to prohibitive expenses for packagings.

Increased Fire Safety Features for Carriers

The FAA’s technical center has simulated the effects of lithium battery fires in aircraft cargo spaces in a variety of scenarios. Current aircraft fire protection features are not able to adequately protect against fires involving lithium batteries, even when consignments are packed and transported in accordance with the IATA DGR. Exactly what safety features may be developed and installed in the future was not specified in this meeting.

Shipping Lithium Batteries at Reduced State-of-Charge

Representatives from the Rechargeable Battery Association (PRBA), defense agencies, and medical device manufacturers related that in the current market, it’s customary to ship lithium batteries at a charge of at least 40% and often 50–100%. While FAA test data shows that batteries shipped at a 30% state-of-charge are far less likely to be involved in an incident, discussion of this proposal indicated that this approach may be unrealistic given market concerns.

Lithium batteries that carry a reduced charge for a long period of time can physically and chemically degrade at an accelerated rate. Also, multiple speakers stated that regulations governing the charge of lithium batteries could be successfully applied only to manufacturers and major initial shippers. Distributors and reverse logistics shippers are unlikely to have the expertise or equipment to control or verify state-of-charge.

Prohibiting Lithium Batteries from Air Transport

Many major air carriers now prohibit lithium batteries as cargo on passenger aircraft. Representatives from the medical device industry and airlines that service remote locations pointed out that prohibiting the carriage of lithium batteries (shipped without equipment) as cargo on all passenger aircraft could lead to the disruption of vital services, especially in remote areas.

Elimination of Regulatory Exceptions

The last proposal, to eliminate regulatory exceptions for small batteries when they are shipped by air, was not well received by the regulated community, as it could have severe economic implications for manufacturers, shippers, and end-users of portable electronic devices.

Future of Lithium Battery Regulations

It’s clear from both industry and regulators that steps should be taken to ensure the safe transport of lithium batteries by air. FAA will bring US industry concerns to Montreal for the ICAO DG Panel this October. Any new standards agreed to during the meeting will be incorporated into ICAO’s Technical Instructions for the Safe Transport of Dangerous Goods. From there, rules filter into the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Dangerous Goods Regulations. US shippers should note that the US DOT periodically harmonizes the domestic shipping standards with international organizations like ICAO and IATA.

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.

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