Lithium battery fires spark new rules

 - February 7, 2008, 5:31 AM

New regulations limiting–and in some cases prohibiting–the transport of certain types of batteries on passenger aircraft are directed at the airlines, but business jet operators throughout the U.S. are addressing the issue with similar policies and recommendations following an increase in the number of aviation incidents involving overheated batteries and battery-powered devices. FAA data shows that between March 1991 and December 2007, there were 88 documented incidents on aircraft and in airport terminals.

The DOT rule, effective January 1, prohibits airline passengers from carrying in their checked baggage spare, loose batteries of any sort–including AA, AAA, C and D cell alkaline batteries used in common household items. Passengers may transport batteries in their checked baggage only if the batteries are inserted into an electrical device, such as a camera, game device or video recorder. A spokesman for the DOT Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) explained that spare batteries are no longer permitted in checked baggage because crew-members cannot access the cargo hold in flight. “We want to make sure if there’s an incident, it can be attended to by safety personnel who have been trained. So having things in carry-on luggage, in the overhead, is the safest way to go.”

Passengers are permitted to pack spare, loose alkaline and small-quantity lithium batteries– such as watch batteries–in their carry-on luggage, as long as the batteries are safely separated, according to the PHMSA spokesman. He explained that the batteries need to be separated because metal-to-metal contact between battery terminals could cause the batteries to overheat and ignite a fire. Placing electrical tape on the terminals is one way to avoid the metal-to-metal contact, he added. “Doing something as simple as keeping a spare battery in its original retail packaging or a plastic zip-top bag will prevent unintentional short circuiting and fires,” said Krista Edwards, deputy administrator of the PHMSA.

Large lithium batteries–those that exceed 8 grams (100 watts) of lithium content but are less than 25 grams (300 watts)–are limited to two spare batteries per person in carry-on luggage. An example of a large lithium battery would be the extended-life 130-watt-hour “universal” lithium ion battery used in most laptop computers.

Lithium batteries larger than 25 grams (300 watt hours) are now prohibited from passenger flights and must be transported as a hazardous material (HazMat) shipment on cargo-only aircraft. This is because the current cargo fire-suppression systems on passenger aircraft are not capable of suppressing the fires initiated by the batteries, according to the PHMSA. The spokesman added that batteries of this size are generally special-use batteries, mainly for military or industrial purposes and wouldn’t normally be used by the general public.

Business Aviation Addresses the Problem
San Carlos, Calif.-based XOJet is one of a growing number of private companies that have chosen to implement their own policies to address the problem. A spokeswoman said the company’s policy is similar to the DOT’s in that spare batteries must be separated to avoid overheating, and the policy limits the lithium content of spare, loose batteries permitted on its aircraft. The lithium content of the anode of each cell, when fully charged, cannot be more than five grams, and the aggregate lithium content of the anodes of each battery, when fully charged, cannot exceed 25 grams. “It is important to note that the typical lithium-ion batteries in mobile phones and laptops are not the sort that would reach these levels of risk or lithium content,” the spokeswoman said. “It is primarily going to impact professional size batteries such as those used by camera crews or other special-use applications where power consumption is higher.”

Other companies, such as Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Southwest Jet Aviation, have not yet written specific policies but plan to in the future. “We’re in the process of investigating the issue, trying to get a better understanding of some of the things the DOT is clarifying,” said Southwest president Jeff Schlueter. “And we probably will take some course of action over the next 30 to 90 days.”

Likewise, Jim Pomroy, the Nascar director of aviation, said the racing association is “looking into the issue.” He added, however, that he doesn’t believe the issue should cause alarm. “They had a few little deals outside the cargo issues that popped up, but it’s nothing to jump out of your boots about,” he said. “If you’re going to bring spare batteries, put them in your carry-on. That makes sense.”

Douglas Carr, NBAA vice president of safety and regulation, will also be posting a safety notice on the NBAA Web site for members. “Most of the people in business aviation still use the airlines,” a spokesman for NBAA said. “The article is intended for them to properly prepare for a flight if they’re going to have lithium batteries.” He added that he takes comfort knowing that it isn’t a pronounced issue in the business aviation industry since there have been very few incidents on business aircraft.

A majority of the aviation incidents involving smoke, fire, extreme heat and explosions caused by overheated batteries have taken place on cargo aircraft, but there were 33 incidents between 1991 and 2007 involving passenger aircraft. Fourteen of those incidents occurred in flight, including one incident in October 2004 in which an Ultralife 9-volt lithium battery “exploded” in the hand of a cameraman traveling on the campaign airplane of vice presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards. The explosion “spewed shrapnel and ignited a fire in the seat, which was extinguished by flight attendants and others,” according to the FAA.

In December 2006, a passenger wearing an EcoQuest International “Fresh Air Buddy” personal air filter with a lithium-ion rechargeable battery on board a Houston to Portland, Ore. flight said the device began “hissing” and emitting sparks. He removed the device and it fell between two seat cushions, where it continued to burn and smoke. A flight attendant used a fire extinguisher to put out the fire, and the airplane diverted to Colorado Springs, according to the FAA.

Other in-flight incidents include a “small explosion” caused by a CR123 lithium battery on board a flight from Buenos Aires to Miami; a burning laptop on board a Toronto to Dallas flight; and a fire in the overhead bin of a flight that had just departed from New York JFK Airport. The NTSB determined the cause of the fire to be loose 9-volt, AA and IDX NP-50S lithium-ion batteries in an audio-video equipment bag. In addition to the in-flight incidents, TSA agents or baggage screeners discovered 10 other smoldering batteries or battery-powered devices before the passengers’ departure, and baggage handlers discovered nine incidents on the ramp after the flights had landed.

Safe Cargo Operations
The remaining incidents occurred on cargo-only aircraft and generally involved large quantities of lithium battery shipments. Although lithium batteries with more than 25 grams of lithium content must now be shipped on cargo-only aircraft, the NTSB has concluded that these shipments might not be any safer–or less likely to overheat–than those aboard passenger aircraft.

The Safety Board issued a recommendation in December, calling for the PHMSA to require aircraft operators to implement measures to reduce the risk of primary lithium batteries becoming involved in fires on cargo-only aircraft. The Safety Board recommended that operators transport lithium batteries in fire resistant containers or in restricted quantities at any single location on the aircraft.
Additional recommendations include:

• requiring operators to place lithium battery shipments in crew-accessible locations where portable suppression systems can be used since fire suppression systems are not required on cargo-only aircraft;

• requiring operators to provide specific information about HazMat shipments to emergency responders in the event of an accident or incident;

• requiring operators to report all incidents involving lithium batteries to the PHMSA for evaluation purposes;

• requiring the PHMSA to analyze the cause of all thermal failures and fires caused by lithium batteries; and

• eliminating regulatory exemptions of lithium batteries with fewer than 8 grams of lithium content until all other requirements have been completed.

The NTSB issued a second recommendation to the PHMSA and the FAA last month, calling for the government and various organizations in the industry to ensure “wider, higher visibility, and continuous dissemination of guidance and information” to the public regarding the safe carriage of lithium batteries.

Safety Board member Kathryn O’Leary Higgins said the recommendation should also call for a “public awareness campaign” regarding the shipment of lithium batteries aboard cargo-only aircraft. “Because I believe that part of the Safety Board’s job is to help educate others about the safety issues we uncover in our investigations, I believe we missed an opportunity to help the public make smarter decisions about shipping packages that contain dangerous materials,” she said.