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Exploding lithium batteries pose real threat to aircraft

Sept. 3, 2014, Washington, D.C. - 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.


September 3, 2014
By Bloomberg News

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 FAA’s findings, posted on the agency’s website, raise
an even bigger issue beyond laptops as makers of the battery cells
commonly ship the products in bulk in the cargo areas of passenger
airplanes. One test found the batteries may blow up, which may render
aircraft 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.”

 

ALPA is the largest pilots union in North America.

 

Fires
involving lithium batteries have brought down two cargo airline flights
since 2010 and prompted the FAA to ground Boeing Co.’s 787 in 2013.
Both FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc. are installing advanced
fire-protection systems on their planes to combat battery-fed fires.

 

The
new research also 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 actual 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.

 

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.

 

An ICAO working group of officials from 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.

 

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

 

Lithium packs
are used to power a wide range of products, including iPhones,
electronic cigarettes and cameras. The market for rechargeable lithium
batteries increased in value to $11.7 billion US in 2013, from $3
billion in 2000, according to AVICENNE Energy, a Paris-based consulting
company.

 

“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.

 

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.

 

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 can burn more 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 explosion.

 

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