Tuesday 12 November 2019

Airlines start banning the vital tech power source amid fears of onboard explosions

Safety fears - the lithium ion battery
Safety fears - the lithium ion battery

Joan Lowy

THEY'RE used to power your laptops, mobile phones and a range of other portable devices - but now lithium ion batteries are in the dock over safety fears.

Two major US airlines said yesterday that they will no longer accept rechargeable battery shipments as new US government tests confirm that explosions and violent fires are likely to occur when large numbers of batteries enclosed in cargo containers overheat.

The decisions by United and Delta airlines could put pressure on other international carriers to refuse battery shipments or appear indifferent to safety. Tests conducted last month by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) show that the rechargeable batteries consistently emit explosive gases when they overheat or short-circuit. In the tests, as well as other FAA tests last year, the buildup of gases - primarily hydrogen - led to firece explosions.

An FAA video of one of the tests shows an explosion knocking a cargo container door off its hinges and tossing boxes of batteries into the air. The container was engulfed in fire minutes later. In the test, a cartridge heater was used to simulate a single battery overheating. The heater caused nearby batteries to overheat and the short-circuiting spread to many of the nearly 5,000 batteries in the container. It's common for tens of thousands of batteries to be placed in a single container. Citing safety concerns, United has informed its cargo customers it will no longer accept bulk shipments of the batteries. Delta quietly stopped accepting bulk shipments of the rechargeable batteries on February. 1. It took the action in response to government testing and fears raised by its pilots and crews. A third major US carrier, American Airlines, stopped accepting some types of lithium-ion battery shipments on February 23. But the airline is continuing to accept small packages of batteries grouped together or "overpacked" into a single cargo container. Those are the kinds of shipments that the FAA has been testing and that are a greater safety concern.

All three airlines said they will continue to accept bulk shipments of equipment containing batteries or in which batteries are placed in the same package as equipment. Placing batteries inside equipment like laptops or in the same package as power tools creates more buffering and is believed to give more protection, although safety experts say this hasn't been fully tested.

"I think it will cause everybody to take a look at their policies and procedures as far as carrying that cargo, and many will elect not to," said John Goglia, a former National Transportation Safety Board member.

U.S. and international officials have been slow to adopt safety restrictions that might affect the powerful industries that depend on the batteries. About 4.8bn lithium-ion cells were manufactured in 2013, and production is forecast to reach 8 billion a year by 2025.

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