FAA Alert On Lithium Batteries After Crash Of UPS Flight 6


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FAA Alert On Lithium Batteries After Crash Of UPS Flight 6

Jim Douglas

October 10, 2010 - The Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Friday alerted operators to results of new research on the risks associated with transporting lithium batteries as cargo on aircraft and recommended actions air carriers can take to reduce those risks.

In a Safety Alert for Operators (SAFO), the FAA summarized recent research which shows that lithium metal (non-rechargeable) and lithium-ion (rechargeable) batteries are highly flammable and capable of igniting during air transport under certain circumstances.

The research also indicates that Halon 1301, the suppression agent found in Class C cargo compartments, is ineffective in suppressing lithium metal battery fires.


The FAA is alerting operators to the recent findings from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) William Hughes Technical Center testing results from April 2010 to September 2010. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), in coordination with the FAA, is considering the best course of action to address the risk posed by lithium batteries.

Lithium batteries are currently classified as Class 9 materials under the Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMR) (49 CFR 180 185). Nonetheless, most lithium batteries and devices are currently classified as excepted from the Class 9 provisions of the HMR. Because of this exception, they do not require a Notice to the Pilot in Command (NOTOC) to alert the crew of their presence on-board an aircraft.

Testing conducted by the FAA William J. Hughes Technical Center (FAA Tech Center) indicates that particular propagation characteristics are associated with lithium batteries. Overheating has the potential to create thermal runaway, a chain reaction leading to self-heating and release of a battery’s stored energy.

In a fire situation, the air temperature in a cargo compartment fire may be above the auto-ignition temperature of lithium. For this reason, batteries that are not involved in an initial fire may ignite and propagate, thus creating a risk of a catastrophic event.

The existence and magnitude of the risk will depend on such factors as the total number and type of batteries on board an aircraft, the batteries’ proximity to one another, and existing risk mitigation measures in place (including the type of fire suppression system on an aircraft, appropriate packaging and stowage of batteries, and compliance with existing requirements contained within both FAA and PHMSA regulations).


United Parcel Service Flight 006 crashed in the United Arab Emirates on September 3, 2010. Investigation of the crash is still underway, and the cause of the crash has not been determined. The FAA is aware, however, that the plane’s cargo did include large quantities of lithium batteries.

Lithium metal batteries are highly flammable and capable of ignition. Ignition of lithium metal batteries can be caused when a battery short circuits, is overcharged, is heated to extreme temperatures, is mishandled, or is otherwise defective. Once a cell is induced into thermal runaway, either by internal failure or by external means such as heating or physical damage, it generates sufficient heat to cause adjacent cells to go into thermal runaway.

The result of thermal runaway in a lithium metal cell is a more severe event as compared to a lithium-ion cell in thermal runaway. The lithium metal cell releases a flammable electrolyte mixed with molten lithium metal, accompanied by a large pressure pulse. The combination of flammable electrolyte and the molten lithium metal can result in an explosive mixture. Halon 1301, the suppression agent found in Class C cargo compartments, is ineffective in controlling a lithium metal cell fire.

The explosive potential of lithium metal cells can easily damage (and potentially perforate) cargo liners, or activate the pressure relief panels in a cargo compartment. Either of these circumstances can potentially lead to a loss of Halon 1301, allowing rapid fire spread within a cargo compartment to other flammable materials. For this reason, lithium metal cells are currently prohibited as bulk cargo shipments on passenger carrying aircraft.

FAA testing has shown that encased or enclosed lithium metal batteries may pose a safety risk. Two types of robust, readily available containers were tested at the FAA Tech Center: five gallon steel pails with crimp on gasketed lids, and 30 gallon steel drums with bolt closed ring seals and gasketed metal lids.

For both types of container, as few as six loose CR2 lithium metal cells were sufficient to cause failure when induced into thermal runaway by an electric cartridge heater. The confined electrolyte and the molten lithium ignition source formed an explosive condition, forcefully separating the lid from the container. The explosive force in this test was likely high enough to cause physical damage to an aircraft’s Class C cargo compartment.

A container specially designed to ship lithium metal batteries would need to demonstrate that it can withstand this explosive condition. There are currently no approved and tested containers that can sufficiently contain the known effects of accidental lithium metal battery ignition. Common metal shipping containers, pails and drums, are not designed to withstand a lithium metal cell fire.

FAA test results have also demonstrated that lithium-ion cells are flammable and capable of self-ignition. Self-ignition of lithium-ion batteries can occur when a battery short circuits, is overcharged, is heated to extreme temperatures, is mishandled, or is otherwise defective. Like lithium metal batteries, lithium-ion batteries can be subject to thermal runaway. A battery in thermal runaway can reach temperatures above 1,100 degrees F, which exceeds the ignition temperature of most Class A materials, including paper and cardboard.

These temperatures are also very close to the melting point of aluminum (1,220 degrees F). The fire suppression system in Class C compartments, Halon 1301, has been shown to be effective in suppressing fires generated by lithium-ion batteries, but does not eliminate the risk of transporting such batteries.


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