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.
Because many airlines are replacing paper charts with laptops and tablet computers, the 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 that the batteries may blow up, which may render airplane 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.”
The association 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’s 787 in 2013. Both FedEx and United Parcel Service 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, or ICAO. The Department of Transportation and its Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration cannot enact anything tougher than current ICAO standards unless “credible reports” emerge of actual onboard 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 P. Cassidy, national safety coordinator for the pilots association, said in an interview.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said July 31 that it is adopting the ICAO’s recommended standard for lithium battery cargo, which will go into effect in the United States on Feb. 1. The regulations will require improved packaging and notification, according to a news release.
Passengers are still allowed to carry their phones, computers and other devices with lithium batteries.
An ICAO working group of officials from regulation 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 Apple iPhones, electronic cigarettes and cameras.
The market for rechargeable lithium batteries increased in value to $11.7 billion in 2013, from $3 billion in 2000, according to AVICENNE Energy, a Paris-based consulting company.