Cargo Carriage of Lithium Batteries Suspected in Some Accidents

 - February 1, 2012, 5:13 AM
Firefighters douse a blaze on board a UPS DC-8 at Philadelphia International. Lithium-ion batteries were initially considered a source of the fire, but the NTSB later determined they were not the source of ignition.

The prospect of one laptop computer or smartphone erupting into lithium-battery-fed flames is daunting enough, but what about a pallet of lithium batteries carried as cargo? Some fiery accidents have been blamed on just that, and so far authorities have done little to prevent this type of accident from recurring.

In testimony at a hazardous materials transportation hearing before Congress on May 13, 2009, NTSB member (now chairman) Deborah Hersman cited accidents involving lithium batteries. In her testimony, Hersman pointed out that there are two types of lithium battery. Primary ones, the nonrechargeable type used in watches and small devices, contain lithium metal, which burns when exposed to air. Secondary or lithium-ion batteries are found in laptop computers, tablets, smartphones and so on, and are made using electrically charged lithium (ions) in a flammable liquid electrolyte, according to Hersman. “Overheating of the battery can result in the ignition of the flammable electrolyte.”

A pallet of primary lithium batteries caught fire after being removed from a passenger flight from Japan on arrival at Los Angeles International Airport. After falling from a forklift, the pallet began smoking and then caught fire, igniting an adjacent pallet of batteries. It took the fire department 25 minutes to douse the flames using water.

According to Hersman, the batteries were shipped as ordinary cargo, not as hazardous materials, under an exemption from hazmat regulations. “The NTSB’s investigation of this incident revealed that these batteries presented an unacceptable risk to aircraft and passengers.”

An Aug. 4, 2004, incident in Memphis, Tenn., involved secondary batteries that were prototypes for an electric car. The batteries were packed in a container that was about to be loaded in a cargo-only aircraft, but as the container was halfway into the aircraft, the loaders smelled smoke and lowered it to the ground. When firefighters opened the container, the batteries burst into flame.

On Feb. 7, 2006, a UPS DC-8 caught fire while in flight and landed at Philadelphia International Airport. The three crewmembers evacuated safely, but the airplane was destroyed. While secondary lithium batteries were installed in several electronic devices shipped on that flight, the NTSB determined “No batteries were found that exhibited any damage identifying a source of ignition, nor could any determination be made that secondary batteries found in the debris had been subject to recalls.”

The fatal crash of a UPS Boeing 747 in Dubai on Sept. 3, 2010, was one of the subjects addressed by NTSB vice chairman Christopher Hart during testimony on April 7, 2011, to a Congressional committee about hazmat transportation. A preliminary report by the United Arab Emirates noted that although no hazardous materials were declared on that flight’s manifest, investigators reported there were on board “at least three shipments of lithium ion battery packs that meet Class 9 hazardous material designation,” according to Hart.

The NTSB report on the UPS DC-8 cited 82 aviation incidents between 1996 and 2007 involving all battery types. Of those, 14 involved secondary lithium batteries and 13 primary types. The 14 incidents included seven with items carried on cargo-only aircraft, six involving checked and carry-on baggage and one with cargo carried on a passenger aircraft.

The passenger aircraft incidents included two in flight and five before takeoff (three on board, two at the airport). Of the seven cargo incidents, four occurred postflight, two before the cargo was loaded and one in flight, according to the NTSB.

Rule Changes for Battery Transport

In response to NTSB recommendations regarding lithium battery fires, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) noted that new rules that it has proposed would “require inaccessible rechargeable lithium-ion batteries to be transported in compartments or freight containers equipped with an FAA-approved fire-suppression system or in FAA-approved fire-resistant containers.” The NTSB found that this response was acceptable, pending issuance of the final rule.

But that applies to secondary (rechargeable) batteries. According to the NTSB, “current FAA-approved suppression systems are ineffective in preventing fires involving primary lithium batteries. Therefore, we urged the PHMSA to explicitly require that all shipments of these batteries be transported in FAA-approved fire-resistant containers until a fire-suppression system that is proven to be effective becomes available.”

There is much more going on behind the scenes on the problem of lithium batteries carried as cargo, including FAA research, PHMSA rulemaking, NTSB concerns about growing numbers of lithium battery-related aviation incidents and advisory information disseminated to the aviation industry.

For all that discussion, however, the Rechargeable Battery Association (PRBA) doesn’t agree with many of the conclusions made regarding aviation and lithium batteries. In a Dec. 23, 2011, letter to the International Civil Aviation Organization regarding an October 2011 ICAO Dangerous Goods Panel and the FAA’s “Freight Aircraft Cargo Fire Risk Model,” the PRBA wrote, “Even a quick review reveals [the model] is based on faulty data and assumptions.”

In addition to its incorrect assumptions about the percentage of shipments of lithium primary and secondary batteries that are carried by air, the PRBA letter noted, the FAA is also wrong to claim that carriage of batteries poses a greater risk than other types of shipments. “However, in fact there is no statistically significant difference between the ‘battery related’ and ‘non-battery related’ incident rates.”

The PRBA also noted that it has yet to be proved that lithium batteries caused two of the key accidents the FAA cited in its report, the 2006 UPS DC-8 fire in Philadelphia and the UPS 747 crash in Dubai. “The FAA assumes that ‘bulk shipments of lithium batteries (primary and secondary)….were likely contributors to two of the freighter fire accidents that occurred on U.S.-registered airplanes.’ This assumption is unfounded. In fact, the NTSB’s report on the 2006 UPS airplane incident does not identify any ‘bulk shipments’ (e.g., pallets) of lithium ion or lithium metal batteries on board the aircraft. While it is true there were several large consignments of lithium batteries on the UPS plane involved in the Dubai incident, there is nothing in the UAE GCAA reports that indicates bulk shipments of lithium batteries were ‘likely contributors’ to the accident.” The GCAA has not yet released its final report on this accident.