Lithium battery risk back in focus after UPS crash

Though the cause of the Sept. 3 crash of a UPS cargo plane in Dubai that killed two crew members has not yet been determined, a pilots’ organization says the accident eventually may prove to underscore the need for stricter rules on shipping lithium dell batteries.

That’s because the head of the aviation authority in the United Arab Emirates has said it appeared the plane carried mainly electronic goods — many of which are powered by lithium batteries. And news reports relying on unidentified sources have said investigators are trying to determine whether lithium batteries were in the cargo compartment where the fire began.

The crash killed two crew members, including Capt. Doug Lampe of Prospect, Ky.

UPS spokesman Mike Mangeot declined to say whether lithium batteries were among the plane’s cargo, citing the confidentiality of the investigation. U.S. transportation safety officials have also declined to reveal cargo or other details of the investigation, which is being headed by the United Arab Emirates’ General Civil Aviation Authority.

But Mark Rogers, dangerous goods program director for the Air Line Pilots Association International, said if reports are correct that the cargo included lithium batteries, the crash “demonstrates what we’ve been saying for years now” — that even if lithium batteries don’t cause a blaze, a fire that involves them “spreads very quickly and can quickly become uncontrollable.”

Lithium batteries, used in millions of electronic items such as laptop computers, cell phones and cameras, have figured in numerous fires on airplanes and in airports in recent years.

Most were extinguished without major damage — such as a passenger’s smoking laptop battery pack that a flight attendant doused with water and Sprite in 2008, and a fire in a bag of audio-video equipment in an overhead bin that forced an emergency landing in 2007.

But the increasing incidence of such fires — 25 since 2007, according to Federal Aviation Administration records — has prompted the U.S. Department of Transportation to consider stricter rules for shipping the batteries. It issued proposed rules last January, and has been weighing comments from industry and pilots groups before issuing a final version.

The proposed rules would require more lithium batteries to be labeled as hazardous materials, limit some battery shipments to cargo holds that have fire-control equipment, and require pilots to be notified of batteries being shipped on a flight.

All cargo planes are required by the Federal Aviation Administration to use fire-control equipment in the lower holds, but the FAA has said such equipment in the main hold — roughly the same area as a passenger cabin — would be impractical. Nonetheless, UPS rival FedEx has installed fire-fighting foam equipment in the main cargo holds of 74 of its wide-body jets.

Rogers, of the Air Line Pilots Association, said pilots’ worry is concentrations of batteries in cargo holds, not passengers’ carry-on laptops or cell phones.

He noted that pilots often aren’t aware they’re carrying a load of batteries or electronics, because small lithium batteries aren’t required to be listed among hazardous materials on board.

“We’re aware of a five-pound shipment of dry ice that’s keeping (fish frozen) … but if there are 100,000 lithium batteries next to that shipment, we’re not even aware that they’re there,” Rogers said. “And if a fire were to start, or if that shipment would be exposed to any fire source, the result could be catastrophic.”

On the other side, battery manufacturers and UPS, which has its main air hub in Louisville, say the proposed rules would slow the shipping of computers, medical devices and other goods, cost billions of dollars, and shift some U.S. shipping — and jobs — to overseas carriers.

“We believe that we do ship (lithium batteries) safely,” said UPS’s Mangeot. “We believe there’s always room for improvement. And we are working with regulators to make that happen.” But, he added, “You have to balance tangible improvements in safety with economic impact.”

Atlanta-based UPS and PRBA – The Rechargeable Battery Association, whose members include many battery manufacturers, were among the organizations that filed comments objecting to portions of the proposed rules.

Both said that shipped batteries have only caused problems when senders didn’t follow safety requirements, such as putting an insulating cap or tape over battery terminals to prevent short circuits.

UPS said that because the proposed U.S. rules differ from international standards, their adoption would cause “chaos” in commercial shipping. Manufacturers would face higher shipping costs — or slower delivery if they switched to ground travel — and U.S. airlines could lose international business to foreign shippers.

UPS estimated the proposed rules would cost the company nearly $ 264 million in the first year alone, in training, equipment and other costs — including the need to reprogram systems and hire more workers at the Worldport hub in Louisville.

Consumers would feel the restrictions as well, said George Kerchner, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Rechargeable Battery Association.

“It would basically mean they would not be able to air-ship their portable electronic equipment,” he said.  Acer laptop battery.

For example, a father couldn’t send a Blackberry to his son in college because it would have to meet standards for shipping hazardous materials, and retail stores don’t have the special labeling and training that would require, Kerchner said.

There are two types of lithium batteries, which present different risks.

Lithium metal batteries contain lithium, are mostly non-rechargeable, and typically power camera, medical devices and other electronics. If they catch on fire, they burn with great heat and can’t be extinguished with suppressants carried on airlines.

Rechargeable lithium ion batteries — used in laptops, cell phones, power tools and other devices — can cause a fire if overheated, but such fires can be extinguished.

Lithium batteries are useful because they store more energy in a small space than other batteries — but that is also what makes them more dangerous when a fire or mishap releases that energy.

“If you handle them properly, you shouldn’t have any problems,” said Jian Xie, a battery expert at Indiana University-Pursue University in Indianapolis. “You’ve probably never heard someone around you say, ‘My cell phone exploded’ or ‘My laptop caught fire.'”

But if a fire spreads to a lithium metal battery, “that battery’s going to explode,” he said.

The National Transportation Safety Board issued recommendations for tighter handling of lithium batteries in 2007, one year after the fiery downing of a UPS plane in Philadelphia.

With flames shooting from its back, the plane made an emergency landing, and its pilot and two other crew members jumped to safety. It took four hours to bring the blaze under control.

The NTSB’s investigation focused on the possible role of lithium batteries, based partly on the presence of batteries and damaged laptops in the burnt remains. The agency finally said it could not pinpoint the fire’s cause, but found that “flight crews on cargo-only aircraft remain at risk from in-flight fires” involving lithium batteries.

Since then, the NTSB, the transportation department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, and pilot groups have advocated continued study of the potential dangers of transporting these batteries, and stricter handling and labeling rules.

Kerchner, of the Rechargeable Battery Association, said lithium batteries are “certainly safe for transport,” based on the billions that have been shipped over the past 15 or 20 years — compared with the few dozen incidents cited by authorities.  toshiba laptop battery.

But Michael Moody Jr., a member of the executive board of the Louisville-based Independent Pilots Association, which represents UPS pilots, disagreed.

“There have been numerous incidents … where we were able to investigate and find that the cause was lithium batteries,” said Moody, who took part in the investigation of the burnt UPS plane in Philadelphia. “The reason why it’s being discussed more and more … is because the rate of incidence of that kind of event is increasing.”

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