Lithium batteries are everywhere – in your cell phone, laptop or iPod. They are lightweight, cheap to make and can hold much more energy than standard batteries. But they can also burst into flames occasionally, and that is the impetus for the call by aircraft manufacturers to ban bulk lithium battery shipments on cargo and passenger planes.
The International Coordination Council of Aerospace Industry Associations, which represents Boeing and Airbus among other manufacturers, is calling for stronger packaging and handling regulations for batteries being shipped on freighters, according to the Associated Press.
Tests performed by the Federal Aviation Administration concluded that lithium batteries consistently discharge explosive gases when they overheat or short-circuit. The buildup of these gases, mostly hydrogen, can lead to explosions or fires. It is common practice for tens of thousands of batteries to be packed into one shipping container.
The FAA tests showed that an aircraft’s fire protection system is unable to suppress or extinguish a fire involving a significant amount of the batteries. By allowing lithium batteries to be transported in aircraft cargo compartments was concluded to be an unacceptable risk to the industry.
Already this year, Delta and United Airlines have both said they will no longer accept shipments of Lithium-ion or Lithium metal batteries. The aircraft manufacturer’s call for a ban will put pressure on all carriers to refuse to transport the batteries or else they will be seen as unconcerned about the safety of their crew and passengers.
In the FAA testing, temperatures reached nearly 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit, close to the melting point of aluminum. The agency said, “the uncontrollability of lithium battery fires can ultimately negate the capability of current aircraft cargo fire suppression systems and can lead to a catastrophic failure of the airframe.”
Yet, two cases in particular point to what can happen. In September 2010 a 747-44AF cargo aircraft operated by UPS was destroyed in an accident shortly after takeoff from Dubai. The investigation concluded that a large fire developed in palletized cargo on the main deck including a significant number of lithium type batteries and other combustible materials.
In 2011, a 747-400F operated by Asiana Airlines crashed about 70 nautical miles west of Jeju Island. One of the pilots reported an aft cargo fire. When the wreckage was eventually recovered there was severe thermal damage. The aircraft was carrying lithium-ion batteries for use in electric cars, along with other hazardous materials. There were no survivors in either crash. In both cases the planes were too damaged to determine the source of the fires.