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Commonly found in portable electronics such as mobile phones and tablets, and used in a variety of products such as cars, mobility aids, toys, smart luggage, data tracking devices and heavy duty machinery, the modern world would struggle to function without lithium batteries.
Billions of lithium batteries are shipped annually and volumes will continue to rise.
The two broad categories of lithium batteries are lithium metal batteries, which are generally non-rechargeable and contain metallic lithium, and lithium ion batteries contain lithium only present in an ionic form in the electrolyte and are rechargeable.
They can be unstable due to high energy density, sudden changes in temperature, short circuits or physical damage, which can cause gas to be released, fire or explosions.
The risk is dependent on the battery size, density, chemistry, design and quality, and risks can be mitigated by correct manufacturing, testing, design and transport regulations.
Brendan Sullivan, Global Head of Cargo at the International Air Transport Association (IATA), says, “Though lithium batteries are widely used, most people are not aware that lithium batteries are dangerous goods that can pose a safety risk if not prepared in accordance with the transport regulations.”
Many incidents are caused by poor packaging, noncompliant state of charge levels, poor quality batteries or devices, counterfeit batteries or mis-declared or undeclared shipments.
Lithium batteries are evolving and so are the measures to mitigate against risks such as better control of manufacturing processes, changing battery designs to prevent thermal runaway, better safety testing methods to detect defects and improved guidance for handling and using batteries.
Transport regulations are constantly being reviewed, fire-resistant containers and covers are being used more frequently, cargo compartments are being enhanced with fire detection and suppression systems and so are flight deck emergency systems, and more professionals are being trained and risk assessments are being performed to ensure compliance.
Baggage and cargo are not the only areas of concern, Sullivan says, “Numerous websites advertise lithium batteries for sale with delivery by airmail as an option. Couple this with the fact that a number of such batteries may not comply with the regulatory requirements.”
E-commerce also presents a challenge because shipments are consolidated from a number of sources and may be transported in packaging that is less rigid and robust than necessary.
CEIV Lithium Batteries was launched two years ago at the IATA World Cargo Symposium in Dublin, with CEVA Logistics named as the launch partner.
Since then, more than 70 companies have been certified and there are more than 30 certification projects due to be completed by the end of the year.
Sullivan says, “The program is rapidly growing and we are facing a high demand from airlines, GHSP and freight forwarders and the number of certified companies in 2024 is excepted to be doubled.”
Feedback shows companies value having processes and products reviewed in depth by an independent validator, they can address gaps and issues to make operations involving lithium batteries safer, and many expect safety measures and regulations to become stronger as volumes increase, Sullivan says.
Certification also creates a network where stakeholders can create the right regulations and raise safety standards.
CEIV Lithium Batteries is not the only program, IATA provides guidance documents and visual aids on its website and provides publications like the Lithium Battery Shipping Regulations.
The tailored Shipping Lithium Batteries by Air training program covers all aspects of identification, packing, marking and labelling, and documentation requirements for transporting lithium batteries.
For many years, IATA has been calling for authorities such as governments to take action against rogue shippers.
Sullivan says, “We have had regular and proactive engagement with ICAO in encouraging governments and regulatory aviation authorities to take greater responsibility and oversight of entities that ship dangerous goods, through the development and implementation of national legislation.”