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Gefahrguttransport im Luftverkehr

Lithium batteries - An IATA white paper on the transportation of dangerous goods by air

Lithium batteries are dangerous goods. We have known this since the catastrophe of the transport ship “Felicity Age“, which sank in the waters of the North Atlantic off the Azores in spring 2022 after a major fire, presumably after a lithium-ion battery in the cargo caught fire. Shipping accidents involving lithium batteries almost regularly fill the leading media and the books of insurance companies. But of course aviation logistics is also concerned with the risks posed by batteries. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has now published a white paper with the attractive title “Make Lithium Batteries safe to ship”. The paper deals with incidents involving lithium batteries and ways to make battery logistics in air transportation safer. We have taken a look at this document for the readers of Leschaco’s dangerous goods blog.

The number of incidents involving lithium batteries in the air is increasing

Based on data from analysts at McKinsey, IATA expects the lithium-ion battery business to grow by more than 30 percent between 2022 and 2030. Lithium batteries are bulk goods and battery transporters are not always aware of the risks associated with transporting these dangerous goods. As the energy density of this type of battery increases, so does the risk of accidents.

Incidents involving lithium batteries in aviation

The shipper's responsibility

IATA points out that shippers have a decisive role to play. They are the ones who have to pay particularly close attention to compliance with the rules. And these rules already include extensive specifications, such as weight restrictions and load status requirements. Fully charged lithium batteries must not be transported in the air at all. Their charge level must not exceed 30 percent during shipping. In addition, the risk of fire is considered too great.

There are also clear labeling requirements. These differ depending on whether they are lithium-ion or lithium-metal batteries and whether they are permanently included in the electrical devices or whether the batteries are only included.

Source IATA
Classification Flowchart Lithium Metal Batteries
Source: IATA

Shippers must also check whether manufacturers and distributors have submitted all the required test reports. These test reports must show that the batteries meet the requirements of the UN Manual of Tests and Criteria, Part III, subsection 38.3. Specifically, the batteries must have been subjected to reduced air pressure and a heat and cold test in an altitude simulation before shipping. They must also have withstood vibration, shock, crushing and short-circuit tests without damage. Quantity restrictions can be found in the IATA Lithium Battery Shipping Regulations (LBSR).

Finally, optimal facilities should be created to contain possible fires on board. IATA does not consider the prescribed fire extinguishing systems in the cargo holds to be sufficient. However, it does not make any specific demands, but refers to national governments, airlines and freight forwarders, who must tighten and specify regulations in this regard.

The sodium-ion battery as a safe alternative to the lithium-ion battery?

Even in its final chapter, in which the IATA aims to provide an outlook for a safer future in battery logistics, it remains vague. It points to the sodium-ion battery as a possible safe alternative to the lithium-ion battery. In this well-known battery technology, lithium is replaced by sodium. Sodium-ion batteries have the great advantage that they can be transported fully discharged, whereas lithium batteries always have a small residual charge. This naturally increases the risk of fire. Sodium batteries can also withstand more heat. They have a longer service life and are less susceptible to wear.

IATA is very cautiously pointing to sodium-ion technology as a possible safe alternative to the potentially more dangerous lithium-ion technology. In the following, we have therefore consulted a number of other sources, particularly from Fraunhofer, in order to assess this technology.

Sodium-ion batteries compared to lithium-ion batteries

Advantages

  • Sodium is available as a raw material 500 times more frequently
  • The availability of sodium is greater and not dependent on a few supplier countries, such as China
  • They are much cheaper to produce
  • They are safer to manufacture, store and transport
  • Aluminum replaces expensive copper
  • They do not contain cobalt, some of which is mined under difficult social and ecological conditions in Africa.
  • The operating temperature is higher, the risk of thermal runaway is lower
  • Charging the battery is faster
  • The battery can be fully discharged and transported and stored fully discharged

Disadvantages

  • The technology is not yet suitable for mass production in Europe
  • The supply chain is not yet developed
  • The energy density is lower
  • They are less flexible to bring into different form factors

In China, BYD is already producing cars that run on sodium-ion batteries. 

The lower energy density compared to lithium batteries is certainly a competitive disadvantage for sodium technology. On the other hand, the increasing demand for battery storage and the limited availability of lithium and other raw materials such as cobalt are leading to significant price increases for lithium batteries. Greater national independence in sodium technology is also likely to contribute to the growing share of sodium battery technology in the coming years. This would be a good development for security in the logistics chain.

The IATA services for shippers of lithium batteries

For some time to come, however, the battery market will still be dominated by lithium technology. This is why IATA’s information on its services is important for manufacturers and shippers of lithium batteries:

Illustrations © 10367292 – stock.adobe.com, IATA and Michael Kausch

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One Response

  1. At the most recent meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO) Dangerous Goods Committee, it was decided that in future, lithium-ion batteries packed together with devices must not exceed a state of charge of 30 percent. Previously, this maximum charge level limit only applied to batteries that were transported by air alone. For batteries that are not packed “with” but “in” devices, e.g. in laptop computers, in toys or in medical devices, the 30 per cent upper limit only applies as a recommendation, not as a mandatory requirement. A recommendation is also only made for battery-powered vehicles.

    A transitional period of one year and a de minimis limit of 2.7 Wh apply to the new regulation. The new regulation therefore does not apply to weaker batteries. There are also exemptions, but these must be applied for. In principle, the ICAO’s decision must still be confirmed at a further meeting before it is officially published in 2025/26 and subsequently declared binding by the IATA as a legal publication. There are also currently no plans to apply these regulations to road transport or shipping logistics.

    It is therefore very important for anyone involved in the shipping of batteries to keep up to date with all announcements over the coming months.

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