FAA Testing Examines Bulk Shipment of Lithium Batteries

 - August 12, 2013, 9:55 AM
The FAA is evaluating methods of safely shipping large quantities of lithium batteries on a former FedEx Express Boeing 727. (Photo: FAA)

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) hopes that testing the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is conducting will identify a limit for the number of lithium batteries that can be safely transported by cargo aircraft. The pilots’ organization contends that stricter International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) regulations that took effect on January 1 improve upon the safety of transporting lithium batteries in bulk but don’t go far enough, including setting a limit on the numbers of batteries carried.

“Billions of lithium batteries are shipped every year as cargo” for use in consumer electronic devices, Mark Rogers, director of ALPA’s dangerous goods program, told the association’s recent safety forum in Washington, D.C.  “The danger comes from defective, damaged or improperly manufactured or improperly packaged batteries that may ignite in transportation…Until this [FAA] testing is complete and published, we feel that a conservative limit should be set and applied to all lithium battery shipments.”

The FAA has conducted previous studies of lithium battery flammability and the risks associated with battery shipments on aircraft, publishing its findings in 2004, 2006 and 2010. In the latest round of testing at the William J. Hughes Technical Center near Atlantic City, N.J., the agency is evaluating methods of safely shipping large quantities of lithium batteries. It recently completed a series of tests to “characterize the hazards of bulk shipments” of both lithium and non-lithium batteries in the cargo compartment of a former FedEx Express Boeing 727. Each test involved 5,000 batteries.

The FAA said that new testing is under way to evaluate the effectiveness of Halon 1301, a liquefied compressed gas used as a fire-suppression agent, in a Class C lower cargo compartment. A Class C cargo compartment is one that cannot be readily reached by the crew, but which has a smoke-detection system and fire suppression that can be controlled from the cockpit. The testing is slated for completion by October 1.

In Fiscal Year 2014, which begins in October, the FAA will conduct more tests on the 727 to assess the effectiveness of fire-hardened cargo containers and fire containment covers for palletized shipments of both lithium ion and lithium metal batteries. It will also test a zoned water spray system in a Class E compartment on a DC-10 test fuselage. A Class E cargo compartment is one that has a separate approved smoke or fire detection system, and pilots have the means to shut off the airflow to or within the compartment. The testing will initially evaluate non-lithium battery cargo but may be extended to “large bulk shipments” of lithium batteries, the FAA said.

Rogers said the new ICAO regulations represent a “major advance in the safety of lithium battery transport,” but still fall short of being a complete solution. The regulations “stop at the package level” by requiring dangerous goods labeling, inspections and prior notification of packages containing two or more batteries or eight cells per package, without limiting the overall quantity of batteries transported. They do not address the “unique hazard” of lithium metal batteries, which in a fire cannot be controlled by Halon and which have been banned since 2005 on passenger-carrying aircraft in U.S. The rules apply only to international cargo shipments, and have not yet been adopted by the U.S. Department of Transportation for domestic shipments.


It is interesting that the FAA is expending resources to better understand the risks associated with transporting lithium batteries but the agency has yet to adopt the international rules into domestic regulations. This would ask the average citizen to question whether the Administration is really focused on aviation safety. The transport of lithium batteries aboard aircraft presents arguably one of the greatest risk to the flying public.

There are a number of key things that can be done now to further avoid additional burdens on legitimate cell manufacturers trying to service their clients.

Shipping companies need to follow their own rules regarding limits on quantities shipped in prototype orders as well as requiring the full UNDOT 38.3 certification before accepting any goods.

Additionally, I might suggest that shippers enact a "Known Shipper Status" policy that requires cell manufacturers, distributors and trading companies to become certified in terms of the rules and regulations behind safe packing an transport of cells before they are allowed to ship any batteries (Lithium or not). Then launch a hefty penalty/fine system if caught skirting the process.

There are only a few high quality cell manufacturers who choose not to sell seconds (or worse) off their back docks to trading companies who re-skin the cells as a new brand. These same leading manufacturers also carry significant global liability insurance and typically implement ISO standards. Raise the barrier to entry for shipping and many of these so-called suppliers will dry up or confine their shipments to domestic orders.

Finally, you need to look at the latest suppression technology that is much better and less expensive than the Halon solution. Speak to Timothy Riley at Pyrophobic to understand the latest test results in an approved FAA testing lab on their method of smothering a cell that even protected adjacent cells!