Stronger Warning from FAA on Lithium Batteries

The agency on Friday alerted operators that the UPS cargo plane that crashed in Dubai on Sept. 3 was carrying large quantities of lithium batteries and that Halon 1301, the suppression agent used in Class C cargo compartments, is ineffective in controlling a lithium metal cell fire.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued a Safety Alert for Operators (known as a SAFO) on Friday that warns operators again about the hazards associated with lithium batteries transported in cargo compartments. The SAFO summarizes the latest FAA and PHMSA testing of two 5-gallon steel pails with crimp-on gasketed lids and 30-gallon steel drums with bolt-closed ring seals and gasketed metal lids, both tested at the FAA Tech Center.

"For both types of container, as few as six loose CR2 lithium metal cells were sufficient to cause failure when induced into thermal runaway by an electric cartridge heater," according to the document. "The confined electrolyte and the molten lithium ignition source formed an explosive condition, forcefully separating the lid from the container. The explosive force in this test was likely high enough to cause physical damage to an aircraft's Class C cargo compartment."

The SAFO says a container designed to ship lithium metal batteries must demonstrate it can withstand this explosive condition. "There are currently no approved and tested containers that can sufficiently contain the known effects of accidental lithium metal battery ignition," it continues. "Common metal shipping containers, pails and drums, are not designed to withstand a lithium metal cell fire. Our test results have also demonstrated that lithium-ion cells are flammable and capable of self-ignition. Self-ignition of lithium-ion batteries can occur when a battery short circuits, is overcharged, is heated to extreme temperatures, is mishandled, or is otherwise defective. Like lithium metal batteries, lithium-ion batteries can be subject to thermal runaway. A battery in thermal runaway can reach temperatures above 1,100 degrees F, which exceeds the ignition temperature of most Class A materials, including paper and cardboard. These temperatures are also very close to the melting point of aluminum (1,220 degrees F). The fire suppression system in Class C compartments, Halon 1301, has been shown to be effective in suppressing fires generated by lithium-ion batteries, but does not eliminate the risk of transporting such batteries."

PHMSA issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Jan. 11, 2010, to reduce the risks associated with air transport of lithium batteries and has submitted its final rule to OMB for review. The two agencies make these recommendations in the SAFO for lithium batteries transported in aircraft cargo holds:

  • Ask customers to identify bulk shipments of currently excepted lithium batteries by information on airway bills and other documents provided by shippers offering shipments of lithium batteries.
  • Where feasible and appropriate, stow bulk shipments of lithium batteries in Class C cargo compartments or in locations where alternative fire suppression is available.
  • Evaluate the training, stowage, and communication protocols in your operation with respect to the transportation of lithium batteries in the event of an unrelated fire.
  • Pay special attention to ensuring careful handling and compliance with existing regulations covering the air transportation of Class 9 hazardous materials, including lithium batteries.

The recommendations don't apply to lithium batteries carried on board by passengers and crew members or stowed in the passenger cabin of aircraft.

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