THE UN's International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) member nations and airline safety advocates will attempt this month to legislate a safer way to transport billions of lithium-chemistry batteries every year, reports Aviation Week.
Recommendations being considered by the 20-member Dangerous Goods Panel could drastically change how the batteries are packed and shipped.
Proposals include an outright ban on shipping lithium-ion batteries in passenger aircraft until better packaging is available, requiring airlines to complete mandatory risk assessments before transporting them.
Other ideas are shipping at lower levels of charge than currently done and removing the so-called lithium battery “loophole" that allows for unlimited numbers of small batteries to be shipped in bulk without the typical hazardous material notifications to the airline.
The panel meets three times every two years, with October’s final meeting the capstone where final agreements on new or revised technical instructions for shipping will notionally be approved and set for implementation January 2017.
The need for change has been highlighted by at least two cargo aircraft losses where bulk shipments of individual lithium batteries or cells were implicated - aboard a UPS DC-8 freighter in Philadelphia in 2006 and a fatal UPS Boeing 747-400 freighter crash at Dubai in September 2010 - and by a growing portfolio of battery testing results by the FAA at its Atlantic City International Airport Technical Centre in New Jersey.
Researchers there have shown that fires in bulk shipments of lithium-metal batteries - the non-rechargeable batteries used in cameras, watches and other consumer electronics - cannot be extinguished by the Halon fire suppressant used in aircraft cargo holds, and that the same suppressant is only “marginally effective" in putting out lithium-ion battery fires.
The situation is worse for freighter aircraft with “Class E" main deck cargo areas that generally have no active fire suppressant.
The failure mechanism for both chemistries typically starts with the “thermal runaway" of a single cell, which can be caused by damage, heat, overcharging, undercharging or other factors. Once a cell vents, spewing flammable electrolytes at temperatures above 1,100F, the adjacent cells then follow suit and the packaging, typically a cardboard box that ignites at 400-500F, becomes engulfed in flames.
A loophole allows unlimited small packages of cells/batteries to be shipped in bulk without notification. The FAA used as many as 5,000 lithium-ion cells in bulk (and 4,800 lithium-metal cells) for testing, but actual cargo loads can contain 50,000 cells or more.