Top 10 Ins & Outs of Shipping Lithium Batteries

A test conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in April 2014 showed that the current practices for transporting lithium batteries on airplanes are not as safe as they could be. The test demonstrated how adding a cartridge heater, equivalent to a single overheated battery, to a shipment of lithium batteries would cause a chain reaction of heated batteries that would lead to a massive explosion caused by flammable gas buildup.

However, it was thought a gas fire suppressant, Halon 1301, in the cargo compartment could control the lithium battery fire. A second FAA test performed in September 2014 proved otherwise — the fire suppressant was ineffective against a lithium metal battery fire. It is a priority, therefore, to know exactly how to minimize the risk of such an accident.

Here are 10 practices to keep in mind when shipping lithium batteries:

  1. Limits: Under the Department of Transportation (DOT) and International Air Transport Association (IATA), the maximum weight of all individual shipments in cargo aircraft is 35 kg. This applies to both lithium ion and lithium metal batteries.
  2. Inner Packaging: The DOT requires that all batteries be separated with inner packaging to prevent batteries from coming in contact with each other and causing a short circuit. The inner packaging must be non-conductive (such as blister packs or cardboard dividers). Batteries cannot be loose or packed with other metal objects. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) enforces these inner packaging rules and recommends cushioning, as well as packing tightly to minimize movement.
  3. Outer Packaging: All batteries, once separated by inner packaging, must be enclosed in outer packaging. The DOT states that the outer packaging must be waterproof. Medium-sized (such as computer or audio/visual equipment batteries) and large-sized batteries (which have over 300 Watt-hours of power) have to either be in strong outer packaging or be contained in equipment. With IATA, the outer packaging must be a metal, plastic, or plywood drum or a metal, plastic, or wooden box.
  4. Defective/Damaged/Recalled: According to the IATA, batteries deemed unsafe for transport by the manufacturer must not be transported internationally. In the U.S., damaged, defective, and recalled batteries must be packaged in combination packages surrounded by non-conductive cushioning. They can only be transported by ocean, road, or rail.
  5. Documentation: The IATA requires that shipments come with documentation stating the battery-type. They should include “Handle with care” notes, steps to be taken if the package is damaged and contact information. The DOT requires that small lithium battery packages also have specifications regarding the battery type and what steps to take if the package is damaged. Hazardous materials shipping papers should accompany medium- to large-sized packages. When shipped by air, these packages will require shipping papers, emergency contact information, pilot-in-command notification, and proper packaging as described above.
  6. Labeling: All medium and large shipments, when shipped domestically, must be marked and labeled in accordance with HMR as Class 9. The IATA states that all shipments containing a combination of lithium batteries in and with equipment must be marked “U.N. 3091 Lithium metal batteries packed with equipment,” or “U.N. 3481 Lithium ion batteries packed with equipment.”
  7. Research Airline Rules: To date, Delta Air Lines, Air France, and United Airlines are no longer carrying bulk shipments of lithium-ion batteries unless they are packed in the same package as the equipment. Additionally, American Airlines does not accept some types of lithium-ion battery bulk shipments, but it does accept small packages of batteries enclosed in a single cargo container.
  8. Compliance: Voluntary compliance to these rules took place Aug. 6, 2014, upon publication of the final rule. Mandatory compliance for aircraft became effective six months later Feb. 6, 2015. For all other forms of transportation, the compliance date was delayed to Aug. 6, 2015.
  9. Aged Batteries: Lithium batteries designated for disposal or destruction cannot be shipped by air without approval from the relevant authorities.
  10. When in Doubt, Delay: The regulations are complicated, and the risks are too high to take a chance, so it is always best to delay if in doubt.   

Let us know in the comments section below about how your organization is managing the evolving rules around battery shipments.

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