The hazardous cargo committee of the International Civil Aviation Organization, an agency of the United Nations, heard a detailed presentation last week in Montreal about the dangers presented by shipping lithium ion batteries on freighters or in the bellies of passenger aircraft. Aircraft manufacturers and members of pilot’s unions, presented findings by the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) that found that current fire suppressant systems on aircraft are unable to suppress or extinguish a fire involving a significant load of the batteries.
The committee agreed to create a special task force charged with developing safer packaging for the batteries. If it can’t come up with something, when the committee meets again in October, it will more than likely craft a formal proposal to ban shipments from passenger planes.
Bulk shipments of the batteries, which are used in cellular phones, laptops and a number of other everyday electronic devices, can number up to tens of thousands of batteries in one shipping container. Tests performed by the FAA concluded that lithium batteries consistently discharge explosive gases when they overheat or short-circuit. The build-up of gases, mostly hydrogen, can lead to explosions or fire. Halon is the most common gas used to suppress fire in the cargo compartment of planes, but the amount of Halon released is not enough to put out most fires, let alone one including lithium batteries. The result could be an explosion.
Cathay Pacific is the most recent carrier to ban carrying lithium ion batteries, joining Delta/Air France, United, Cargolux, Qantas and Virgin Australia.