UN reignites lithium battery debate

LioN_Battery_FTA few months after the International Civilian Aviation Organization (ICAO) gave conflicting recommendations about a proposed industry-wide ban on the transport of lithium batteries as cargo on passenger flights, the debated has roared back to life after a United Nations panel recommended the same kind of ban on shipments of the rechargeable batteries, the AP reports.

The reason for the UN panel’s decision is because of the risk of the batteries igniting a fire strong enough to potentially destroy a large aircraft. When lithium type batteries are packaged together in bulk, they are susceptible to “thermal runaway.” This occurs when the internal circuitry is compromised, causing an increase in temperature in one or more of the cells. The heat can reach a point where the cells vent hot gasses, which can then increase the temperature in neighboring cells until there is ignition and a fire.

In late October 2015, ICAO’s panel on dangerous goods voted 11-7 against a ban, calling for packaging to be developed to provide “an acceptable level of safety.” Then, in December, another ICAO’s panel on aircraft safety voted for a ban on the rechargeable batteries, creating confusion and uncertainty in the industry. The top-level ICAO council still needs to vote to approve a proposal of a battery ban and is scheduled to meet to decide on the issue next month.

In FAA tests, overheating batteries have released explosive gases that, when ignited, have blown the doors off of cargo containers. Engineers from the FAA’s technical center said last year that the explosions are powerful enough to knock the interior panels off cargo compartment walls. More than 20 carriers have already banned lithium batteries from being carried in passenger planes, but freighters are still carrying them, despite efforts by the International Federation of Air Line Pilot Associations to ban them. George Kerchner, the executive director of the Rechargeable Battery Association, said the commission ignored other solutions short of a ban to make shipments safer such as more stringent packaging, limiting the batteries’ state of charge and new labeling requirements.

Last year the United States backed a ban, but the battery industry, shippers and IATA resisted. Their stance is that the risk comes from a small number of disreputable manufacturers, mostly based in China, that don’t necessarily declare the shipments as dangerous goods. Last year, Glyn Hughes, IATA’s head of cargo, cited an incident in which an air waybill for a six-tonne, 300-box shipment of cell phone accessories was labeled “no battery, no magnet.” While still on the ground, one of the boxes in the pallet began to smoke, leading to the discovery of thousands of improperly packed and labeled lithium batteries.

The United States, Russia, Brazil, China and Spain, as well as organizations representing pilots and airline manufacturers voted for the ban. The Netherlands, Canada, France, Germany, Australia, Italy, the UAE, South Korea, Japan and the UK, as well as the airline trade group voted against it.

It remains to be seen how the ICAO council will ultimately rule on the lithium battery ban.


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