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Aircraft makers urge ban on lithium battery shipments

March 10, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) — Aircraft makers are urging a ban on bulk lithium battery shipments on passenger planes, calling the threat of fires “an unacceptable risk,” according to an industry position paper obtained by The Associated Press.

The International Coordination Council of Aerospace Industry Associations, which represents aircraft companies such as Boeing and Airbus, is also calling for stronger packaging and handling regulations for batteries shipped on cargo planes.

The paper cites recent testing by the Federal Aviation Administration that shows the batteries emit explosive gases when overheated. It’s common for tens of thousands of batteries to be packed into a single shipping container. In the tests, a buildup of gases inside the containers led to explosions and violent fires.

The call for a ban applies to both lithium-ion and lithium metal batteries. Lithium-ion batteries are rechargeable and are used in products ranging from cellphones and laptops to power tools. Lithium metal batteries are not rechargeable, and are often used in toys, watches and some medical devices, among other products.

The International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. agency, decided last year to prohibit the shipment of lithium metal batteries aboard passenger planes in its shipping standards for dangerous goods. The aircraft industry paper was drafted for presentation at a meeting of the agency’s dangerous goods panel in April.

The call for a ban is aimed only at cargo shipments, not batteries that passengers take on board planes in their personal electronic devices or carry-on bags.

George Kerchner, executive director of PRBA, the Rechargeable Battery Association, said in a statement that lithium-ion battery makers are “fully committed to the safe transport of lithium batteries.” He said the battery industry trade association will continue to work with the aviation industry and government officials.

Passenger and cargo airlines generally fly the same types of planes, although they are configured differently inside. The fire protection capabilities of the planes were “developed considering the carriage of general cargo and not the unique hazards associated with the carriage of dangerous goods, including lithium batteries,” the paper said.

Temperatures in some of the government testing reached nearly 1,100 degrees (600 Celsius). An airliner might be able to withstand a fire generated by a small number of lithium-ion batteries, but a fire involving lots of them could destroy the plane, according to a slide presentation last year by Airbus engineer Paul Rohrbach. The presentation was an industry position reflecting the views of other aircraft manufacturers as well as Airbus, according to the company.

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

Lithium batteries dominate the global battery industry because they’re cheap to make, lightweight and can hold a lot more energy than other types of batteries.

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