Batteries Should Go By Ship, Not Airplane

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Earlier this week, Russ Niles sent me a news clipping describing a house fire in which an overheated laptop computer was implicated as the cause. This came just as ALPA, the airline union, was calling for regulations banning air transport of the high-energy lithium-ion batteries that power everything from laptops to portable DVD players. These batteries have been implicated in a number of aircraft fires and there have been numerous non-aircraft related incidents involving lithium batteries. Google around for 15 minutes and you'll find plenty.

Thus far, the FAA has demurred, noting instead that it's studying the problem. While I'm generally not a proponent of regulation, this one is a good idea. Lithium batteries are, in my opinion, like little hand grenades-- accident craters looking for a grid reference. If the industry doesn't take some kind of action, it's only a matter of time before there's a hull loss due to a battery fire. Many—if not most—of these batteries are made in China, where manufacturing quality control is barely understood, much less practiced. If you're a UPS or FedEx pilot over the dark Pacific in the middle of the night, it may be better to just not think about the pallet of lithium batteries stuffed into a container somewhere behind you.

Call me naïve, but why don't the airlines just ban these things on an industry council basis? Just declare them "not acceptable for air transport" and let them go by ship. Then let the regulators sort it out later. I don't think it's worth the risk of burning up a freighter just so our precious little computers and gadgets can operate 30 minutes longer.

It's not just cargo aircraft, either. On any typical airline flight, how many passengers are carrying laptops? A third? Half? On my last business trip, I was carrying two, plus three cameras, all with lithium batteries. The fire risk in the cabin is rather lower because you don't have the things stacked up in a thermal critical mass and you can at least get at one if it cooks off. The batteries are notoriously difficult to extinguish if they do ignite. I don't think they need to be banned from the cabin. For a single battery, the risk is probably acceptably low. But users of these batteries should understand they pack a hell of a lot energy into a small space.

Here's something else to think about. If you carry a laptop or other lithium-powered device in your personal airplane, where do you carry it? Don't put it out of reach in the baggage compartment. If it ignites in the small confines of a light aircraft, you could have a big problem. Better to have it within reach so you can hit it with a fire extinguisher—you're carrying one, right?—in the remote event that it ignites. In dire circumstances, I suppose you could eject the thing if you had to, which is something freighter pilots can't do.

That's why they favor banning air shipments of lithium batteries. And I think they're right.

Comments (21)

The batteries need to be charged to become a hazard, so shipping new batteries that have never been charged via air is NOT a problem. Thus some of the argument above is based on a false premise... that the new batteries are shipped charged up fully, where they MIGHT become a problem.

Posted by: Bob Heuman | August 28, 2009 9:20 AM    Report this comment

Good point. But...I was told by someone in the industry that they come out of the manufacturing process charged significantly as part of routine testing.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | August 28, 2009 12:36 PM    Report this comment

The industry does charge them a bit to be certain that works, but that is why I said they are not shipped fully charged.

The amount of charge in them is NOT enough to cause any problem, which is why when you finally buy and install a replacement battery you need to have it charge for several hours at a minimum, to get them to that fully charged point.

In addition, the batteries, when in the air from China, are not in use, not connected to a power source [as the laptops that cause fires are] and therefore are not hot either.

The laptops with batteries that catch fire are always, from what I've heard, laptops that are plugged into the wall, and then put on a soft surface where the heat exhaust holes are blocked by the surface the laptop is on [or sinks into]. Remove the charger and those same batteries are far less likely to cause a fire even on a soft surface, where the heat is generated by the CPU [with a dust plugged heat exhaust and fan], ram and motherboard are a constant source of heat while the unit is on and running, is the reason for the fire, NOT just the battery. The batteries, if FAULTY, can be a cause on their own, but in most cases the battery is only PART of the heat source, the owner's stupidity and poor maintenance of the laptop's heat exhaust facilities are the rest of the heat source, and a battery on its own is never going to cause a fire.

Posted by: Bob Heuman | August 28, 2009 4:56 PM    Report this comment

I agree, it seems to me the air carriers could just decide to refuse the shipments. I suppose having federal laws would help with enforcement though.

FYI, the FedEx fire, Aug. 14 in Minneapolis, apparently began in a shipment of battery-powered smokeless cigarettes, according to USA Today. They are powered by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.

Posted by: Mary Grady | August 31, 2009 7:14 AM    Report this comment

Well that puts paid to using Lithium ion batteries in electric planes. Here we have fully charged batteries, working hard, generating heat and with the sudden temperature differences of the environment is a real danger.

I don’t know if shipping them would be a good idea, imagine the batteries being roughed up by bad weather out to sea. So what you are saying is that it is better to loose more cargo ships than to loose cargo planes.

But then let’s go green and not ship those dangerous batteries anywhere and stop using laptops, cameras, cell phones etc and go retro to the good old days when we had secure technology like lead acid batteries that generate hydrogen and exploded when there was a spark. Oh I forgot we use nickel nitrate batteries in aviation which pass maximum amperage if shorted causing fires if there are no high speed (and I mean very fast) fuses to protect your aircraft. 

What is really needed is to have different packaging systems that ensures non flammability of the batteries when being transported i.e. put them into liquid nitrogen containers thus ensuring two conditions cannot be met to cause a fire (heat and oxygen).

Posted by: Bruce Savage | August 31, 2009 7:28 AM    Report this comment

I don’t know if shipping them would be a good idea, imagine the batteries being roughed up by bad weather out to sea. So what you are saying is that it is better to loose more cargo ships than to loose cargo planes

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | August 31, 2009 7:57 AM    Report this comment

There are also newer lithium based battery chemistries that are not explosive and do not ignite when shorted out. Chemistries based on Lithium manganese or Lithium Iron Phosphate as two examples are reasonably safe if punctured or shorted out. these have almost the same power density as conventional lithium and we should urge manufacturers to change to these chemistries

Posted by: BILL LAWSON | August 31, 2009 10:34 AM    Report this comment

The comment was about a ship's hull, not an airplane hull, with this 'only a matter of time' comment. We covered the aircraft loss early in the article, but what applies also applies to a cargo ship, which has an even larger crew. Should we lose 15 or 20 sailors or two or three airmen? Take your pick, in case of fire. [And yes, ships do have lifeboats... I know that. Crewmen still die in fires on ships.]

Posted by: Bob Heuman | August 31, 2009 12:37 PM    Report this comment

Sorry Paul misunderstanding again. My point is that doesn't matter which way the batteries are transported they could cause a death or two even on ships, rail or truck. The manufactures should be responsible for the safety of their products and the way to ensure that safety is to package them in inert, non-flammable materials thus ensuring the safety of all handling the goods this will include baggage handlers at ports and airports.

I do see point in flying them as this is the way forward. When pressure groups are trying to force the population to get out of their cars and return to trains and canal travel this is precisely the type of argument they are looking for to add to their arsenal. Secondly the airfreight services have spent a lot of time and effort to secure their freighting business.

Lastly its not just for half an hour extra there is a vast time difference (about three week) between airfreight and shipping.

Sorry Paul I cannot agree with you prognosis that the freighting of lithium batteries should be banned from air cargo especially as there are ready answers to the problems.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | August 31, 2009 1:16 PM    Report this comment

Bruce made a comment that I'd like to revisit. I find it ironic that Avweb takes the stand that lithium batteries shouldnt be shipped by air, and yet every time I turn around there is a new blurb about some new electric airplane powered by guess what - lithium batteries. No mention is ever made of the potential danger of lithium batteries in these stories. More irony - the source of many of these lithium batteries is China - the same country that brings us the Yuneec electric powered airplane.

I've flown enough electric powered RC airplanes to know I'd NEVER fly in a full scale aircraft powered by lithium - at least not the lithium chemistries currently in widespread use. And this is coming from a guy who flies an airplane powered by a car engine so I'm not overly risk averse.

Maybe the irony of this conflict will result in less hype of battery powered, impractical, and potentially very dangerous personal aircraft in future Avweb issues?

Posted by: Mike Wills | August 31, 2009 3:18 PM    Report this comment

future electric airplanes should have the batteries treated like drop tanks. thus if they light up you can jettison them.

Actually some of the new chemistries are much better. I have seen videos of some of the new batteries being shot at, run through by conductive rods and nothing too spectacular happens. If you shoot a regular lithium battery the result is a major unstoppable giant fire.

Posted by: BILL LAWSON | August 31, 2009 4:37 PM    Report this comment

Irony? How ya figure? All of the electric airplanes are experimental and will remain so for the foreseeable future. If an experimental runs on blazing cow dung, who cares? Homebuilders realize the risk is all theirs and there is no duty of care, which is the way it ought to be.

The issue ALPA is raising is different. They're making the point that a shipper has a duty of care to reasonably assure the cargo isn't dangerous and won't burst into flames. And by the way, have you seen the lithium battery pack in one of the electric airplanes? The one I saw was about twice the size of shoebox. If something like got in internal short, it would probably melt its way out of the airplane in seconds. I don't know what the real risk is, but it's not zero.

Up to the builder, though. Different set of considerations entirely.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | August 31, 2009 6:10 PM    Report this comment

Before making suggestions on banning lithium batteries on aircraft, there needs to be more specific information as to the circumstances of the prior laptop fires. AFIK there has not been a fire of a laptop that was shut off with the battery attached. My laptop has a built in cooling fan and on occasion vents a stream of fairly hot air when running. If this exhaust vent or the intake vent or both were blocked, fire could certainly result.

On a commercial flight, the laptop is either going to be stowed turned off with the battery connected or it is going to be powered up on a tray table.

In the first instance I don't think battery fires are seen. In the second instance, the user is very close to the laptop and presumably will take action if it gets overheated.

Does ALPA have evidence of a stored laptop that is shut off with it's lithium battery attached catching fire?

Posted by: STEPHEN SHIRLEY | August 31, 2009 7:17 PM    Report this comment

I guess we will just disagree on this one. Not all experimentals are homebuilts. This includes a number of electric self launch sailplanes that are imported into the US and come to their new owners ready to fly. I believe the Yuneec aircraft that has been hyped repeatedly by Avweb is being targeted as an SLSA, not an experimental homebuilt.

I simply think you do a disservice to your readers when you hype all of the new electric airplanes on the horizon and dont mention the experimental nature of them, the practical realities of the current technology, and the potential danger.

As for some of the new chemistries being better, that may be true in terms of their safety aspects. But as far as I know, none of those safer lithium chemistries have the energy density that the volatile lithiums do.

Posted by: Mike Wills | August 31, 2009 7:22 PM    Report this comment

The "safer batteries" are in the order of 20% heavier than the highest power lithium batteries. this is a weight compromise that GM and other auto companies are making because it will be interesting enough to dump 20 Kw hours if the battery shorts out without turning it into a multi hundred pound bomb that you cannot put out with normal fire extinguishers (think Magnesium fire).

Also most of the lithium battery incidents have been during charging not when being used or stored. thus understanding how to transport and store Lithium like we do with many other hazardous chemicals is what should be done first before we blindly ban anything with the word lithium.

Interestingly, Fire departments already are being trained on how to handle an electric auto accident as this is a major problem on the roads today.

Posted by: BILL LAWSON | September 1, 2009 9:05 AM    Report this comment

We do need to examine electrical airplanes critically from the safety perspective and for the October issue of Aviation Consumer, we have just such an article. I agree they represent more of a hazard than shipping batteries does.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | September 1, 2009 11:22 AM    Report this comment

Some of the fires have been with devices not connected to any external power source. There clearly is a hazard of some sort, buy there may be methods of mitigation which set a maximum level of charge in the batteries for shipping. i hope clear heads prevail in setting safe guidelines.

Of course my solution would be to manufacture the darned things HERE and avoid the hop over the pond.

Posted by: RAY DAMIJONAITIS | September 1, 2009 10:36 PM    Report this comment

There are a lot of different kinds of batteries out there, and the technology is changing fast, so impressions we've gotten from the batteries in laptops, or RC aircraft, or electric cars, may not apply to the kinds of batteries in electric aircraft, especially in production versions that may still be a few years down the road.
When I recently interviewed Randall Fishman, who built the Electraflyer-C, and asked him about the safety issues, he said the batteries' discharge rate is very low, so they don't heat up as much as you might think; they use very high-quality chargers; they are air-cooled; and as an extra precaution, they are contained in stainless steel boxes. Looking forward to Paul's definitive look at the issue in Aviation Consumer!

Posted by: Mary Grady | September 2, 2009 6:28 AM    Report this comment


I believe Mr. Fishman is using Lithium Polymer - the same batteries that have revolutionized RC in the past 5 - 10 years. I know that the electric powered self launch sailplanes coming out of Europe with electric power are using Li-Po. And for good reason. To my knowledge at this point they still offer the greatest energy density per pound of any of the chemistries. This may not be true in the case of some exotic (expensive) technologies, but for affordability they offer the best performance. And still any full scale electric airplane is going to be a meager performer at best.

I've used Li-Po for years in both my hobby (RC) and my work (UAVs). There are five common ways to hurt a Li-Po which may result in fire. Improper charge technique, mishandling and damaging the cell, high discharge rates, heat, and over discharging. The most benign failure mode is that the cell "puffs up" without burning and I've experienced this a number of times even with batteries that were not abused.

Rather than the subjective "discharge rates are pretty low" I'd like to see some real numbers from Mr. Fishman.

Posted by: Mike Wills | September 2, 2009 10:11 AM    Report this comment

Even if manufactured 'here', [and to me that is Canada and not the U.S.,] distribution within North America is still often done by air, so it does not really solve the initial 'problem' while it would likely increase some costs due to higher labour costs. If it is made in California, it needs to get to Maine or Newfoundland. If made in Newfoundland, it needs to get to Florida, or British Columbia, and so on. Train IS feasible, but if classified as a dangerour good due to fire hazzard, there are too many train routes that are eliminated or problematic, so little is gained. Trucks carrying dangerous goods also have routing issues, and are not allowed over the George Washington Bridge or through the Lincoln Tunnel, to give two examples of simple routing issues if delivering to someone in Manhattan. So I do not see any of this happening... I do not see the batteries classified as dangerous, and I do not see any restriction on transport by air.

Posted by: Bob Heuman | September 2, 2009 11:01 AM    Report this comment

Did I read that right, that someone wanted to make the lithium batteries "Jettisonable" I think that a flaming 150 lb Lithium Bomb coming towards my house, is far worst than the "Sucker" Pilot who wanted to fly with the darn thing going down, somewhat under control, with the smoking battery still attached to the airframe. Please don't think "JETTISONABLE" is the anwser.

Posted by: Roger Mullins | September 7, 2009 9:43 AM    Report this comment

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