Exploding Lithium Batteries Riskier to Planes: Research

New research shows that lithium batteries can explode and burn even more violently than previously thought, raising questions about their use and shipment on passenger airplanes.

Because many airlines are replacing paper charts with laptops and tablet computers, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration conducted tests on what would happen if one of their rechargeable lithium-ion battery cells ignited. In one test, the cockpit filled with smoke thick enough to obscure instruments and vision out the window for about five minutes.

The findings, posted on the FAA’s website, raise an even bigger issue beyond laptops as makers of the rechargeable cells can ship the products in bulk in the cargo areas of passenger airplanes. One test found the batteries may blow up, which might render airplane fire-suppression systems ineffective.

“That’s a result we haven’t seen before,” Mark Rogers, director of the Air Line Pilots Association’s dangerous goods program, said in an interview. “It’s certainly very sobering because that condition could happen on aircraft today.”

A working group of officials from international regulatory agencies, airlines, unions and battery manufacturers is scheduled to meet Sept. 9 in Cologne, Germany, to address the new research and determine whether additional restrictions are needed, according to an Aug. 4 letter sent by the agency. The FAA didn’t make a recommendation in posting the findings.

Market Growth

Because no other metal is better at holding a charge and dissipating heat with as little weight, lithium has come into widespread use to help power smartphones, cordless tools, cars and e-cigarettes. The market for rechargeable lithium batteries jumped to $11.7 billion in 2013, from $3 billion in 2000, according to AVICENNE Energy, a Paris-based consulting company.

What makes lithium so useful, is also what makes it so dangerous.

A United Parcel Service Inc. cargo plane with 81,000 lithium batteries caught fire and crashed after it left Dubai on Sept. 3, 2010. Another UPS aircraft barely made it to Philadelphia on Feb. 7, 2006, after a fire erupted in its cargo area. And an Asiana Airlines Inc. cargo jet crashed into the East China Sea on July 28, 2011, after the crew reported a fire on board.

Both UPS and FedEx Corp. are installing advanced fire-protection systems on their planes to combat battery-fed fires.

Lithium batteries when pierced by metal have also caught fire in electric vehicles made by Tesla Motors Inc. and General Motors Co.

Regulatory Limits

The new research on risks to airlines creates a quandary for regulators, which were barred in 2012 by Congress from imposing standards on lithium battery shipments that would be stricter than those recommended by the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization. The Department of Transportation and its Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration can’t enact anything tougher than current ICAO standards unless “credible reports” emerge of on-board fires.

“It’s set an incredibly high hurdle for us to see further regulations, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to keep on pushing for it,” Sean Cassidy, national safety coordinator for ALPA, said in an interview.

ALPA is the largest pilots union in North America.

Improved Packaging

PHMSA said July 31 it’s adopting ICAO’s recommended standard for lithium battery cargo, which takes effect in the U.S. Feb. 1. The regulations will require improved packaging and notification, according to a press release.

Passengers are still allowed to carry their phones, computers and other devices with lithium batteries.

A spokesman for PHMSA, Damon Hill, didn’t return phone calls seeking comment on whether the standards are adequate considering the new research.

“As more testing is done and new information becomes available, we will continue to factor that data into our efforts,” UPS said in an e-mailed joint statement with its pilots union, the Independent Pilots Association.

The Rechargeable Battery Association, also known as PRBA, hasn’t had a chance to digest the latest FAA test results, George Kerchner, executive director of the Washington-based trade group, said in an interview.

“It’s something that we’re going to be looking at,” Kerchner said.

Awareness Campaign

Safety is a top concern of manufacturers and they are eager to work with regulators to understand the tests, Kerchner said. The group wrote to ICAO on Aug. 8 seeking awareness campaigns and better guidance on how to ship lithium-based batteries.

There are two major categories of lithium batteries, rechargeable and non-rechargeable, and each burns differently.

U.S. passenger airline flights have been prohibited since 2004 from carrying cargo with non-rechargeable lithium batteries. When they burn, they produce their own oxygen supply and can’t be extinguished by fire suppression systems installed on aircraft, according to FAA research.

The rechargeable lithium-ion cells, which also burn violently, have been allowed to be transported in the belly of U.S. passenger flights since previous testing showed that fire extinguishing systems were capable of containing any blaze.

The new FAA research identified several new hazards in both category of battery.

Door Hinges

In one test, a single D-size lithium non-rechargeable cell was heated in an airline shipping container. Instead of burning, it exploded with enough force to dislodge the top of the container and released significant smoke.

An ICAO meeting summary from earlier this year revealed tests where a load of 4,800 non-rechargeable batteries in a mothballed airliner was ignited. After the test was suspended to prevent damage to the aircraft, the battery load exploded with such force that it blew the cockpit door off its hinges.

Both types of batteries behave unpredictably when overheated or ignited, according to the latest research. Changes in manufacturing can create “substantially different” reactions, according to the FAA tests.

“Unfortunately, the more testing we do, the more concerned we become,” Gus Sarkos, manager of the FAA’s Fire Safety Branch, said Aug. 6 at a conference in Washington sponsored by the pilots association.