ALPA Call for Ban on Lithium Batteries Underscores Need for Safer Chemistries

By Bill Moore

Posted: 28 Aug 2009

On August 25, 2009, the Air Line Pilots Association, representing some 54,000 commercial airline and cargo carrier pilots called for a temporary ban on the shipment of lithium batteries on passenger and all-cargo aircraft, "until new regulations are in place to ensure the safe transport of these hazardous materials."

Their concerns are illustrated by the above photo of a UPS DC-8 cargo jet that caught fire in 2006 and had to make an emergency landing in Philadelphia. The presumed cause of the fire was the self-ignition of a shipment of lithium batteries. However, the official NTSB report of the incident simply states...

The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was an in-flight cargo fire that initiated from an unknown source, which was most likely located within cargo container 12, 13, or 14.
The NTBS contacted the shippers whose cargo was stowed in the effected containers, as well as Containers 16 and 17. Among the items being shipped were various makes of laptop computers, the batteries of which were all found to be intact. Also among the cargo were secondary lithium battery cells, as well as other electronic devices including two uninterrupted power supplies, a digital recorder, credit card readers and bar code scanners.

The remainder of the items were identified as general freight, including clothing, food, machine parts, CDs, digital video discs, medical supplies, documents, and computer parts.

While some of the loose lithium batteries exhibited a slight bulging, indicating internal overheating, none of the batteries examined indicated they had gone into runaway thermal meltdown. Still the suspicion is one or more of the lithium batteries in one of the shipments did ignite and start the fire that ultimately destroyed the aircraft after the three-man crew had safely evacuated and fire fighting crews battled for four hours to put out the conflagration.

Prior to the 2006 incidence, two cargo pallets that included 120,000 primary (non-rechargeable) lithium batteries caught fire at Northwest Airlines cargo facility in Los Angeles in 1999.

The cargo pallets had been taken off an inbound passenger-carrying flight from Osaka, Japan. The Safety Board’s investigation of this incident revealed that lithium batteries likely presented an unacceptable risk to aircraft and passengers that required immediate attention.

As a result, the bulk shipment of lithium batteries is currently prohibited from the cargo holds of passenger jets. ALPA wants to see that extended to include cargo jets. Passengers are still permitted to carry on their laptops, iPods and cellphones -- all powered by small rechargeable (secondary) lithium batteries, and ALPA claims it "is not seeking new restrictions on the number of lithium batteries passengers carry onboard an airliner."

What it is proposing is the federal government, through the DOT's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, "fully regulate these batteries as dangerous goods, including requiring appropriate packaging, labeling, marking, testing, and pilot notification."

Proposed Ban Has Medical and Military Implications

One group questioning ALPA's call for a temporary ban is PRBA - The Rechargeable Battery Association. George A. Kerchner, its executive director, issues the following statement in the wake of ALPA's call.

“We are very concerned that the Air Line Pilots Associations has not fully considered the impacts of an outright ban on shipping lithium batteries by aircraft. This would jeopardize critical shipments of batteries needed for medical equipment that saves lives and military equipment at the cutting edge of U.S. military technology.”

“PRBA is equally concerned about the recent incidents involving lithium batteries particularly if these shipments were not made in compliance with existing hazardous materials regulations, which appears to be the case. We therefore would like to see the U.S. Department of Transportation step up their enforcement of existing lithium battery regulations.

“To immediately address these issues, PRBA fully supports an expedited lithium battery rulemaking by the U.S. Department of Transportation that would harmonize the U.S. lithium battery regulations with the more stringent lithium battery provisions in the international dangerous goods regulations.”

Towards Safer Lithium Batteries

There have been enough incidences of lithium-based batteries catching fire either due to internal shorts or external abuse to warrant caution in handling large shipments of cells. This has prompted a search for safer lithium batteries. The industry has responded in two ways: chemically and electronically.

On the chemistry front, more and more cell manufacturers are shifting to less energetic chemistries such as phosphate, which while it produces less voltage per cell, is far less prone to self-ignite. Most recently, researchers at Argonne National Laboratory outside of Chicago recently announced that they had developed a boron and fluorine-based molecule that when added to the electrolyte in the cell, prevents it from overcharging.

Reports the New York Times its article Chemistry Change in Batteries Could Make for Safer Electric Cars...

Amine said the new approach offers several advantages over current technologies. In addition to the lower cost, the molecule is more reliable, he said. Other systems that use some kind of molecule in a similar way cannot control more than one overheating cycle, he said, while his molecule will soak up extra voltage through 500 or more cycles.

The second approach is to electronically monitor and manage the state of the cells, usually in modular groups. However, this approach, estimates the Times, adds as much as 20 percent to the cost of the battery and is subject to electronic failures.

While in the short term a ban on air shipment of lithium cells and batteries could set back battery electric car battery development, it may also have a silver lining for America. Since many cells and batteries are sourced in Asia -- GM's Volt battery pack will be assembled from LG Chem lithium cells shipped out of Korea -- in the long run, it could drive more American cell manufacturing, as well as lead to safer lithium and other battery chemistries.

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