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Lithium batteries in air freight

Four tips for safe and unhindered transport

The number of shipments with lithium batteries is increasing rapidly. In order to limit the risks, the transport of these flammable components is subject to strict, constantly changing requirements. How do you guarantee safe air transport under these circumstances without disruptions or delays? DSV gives you four tips in consultation with Special Cargo Services (SCS).

Lithium batteries: transport with risks

The use of lithium batteries is growing explosively. The expectation is that the sales of these energy carriers will grow by 14 percent per year to an amount of 68 billion euros in 2022. That then only concerns the lithium-ion batteries that are rechargeable. The non-rechargeable lithium metal batteries are not included in these figures.

Two developments contribute to the growing demand for lithium batteries: the popularity of mobile electronic devices such as smartphones, tablets and digital cameras and the advance of electric vehicles. The advantage of lithium batteries is that they have a high energy density, are environmentally friendly, can be charged in the meantime and have a long service life.

Fire and explosion hazard

However, there is also a disadvantage to lithium batteries: they are flammable and can cause explosions. The fire hazard comes from, among other things, the highly flammable lithium-ion liquid in the battery. This liquid can leak due to a stroke, a short circuit or a warming up of the battery. Due to the high energy density, this quickly leads to a violent fire, which can spread to the adjacent batteries. This can cause a chain reaction and ultimately an explosion.

Because lithium in combination with water produces a highly explosive gas, conventional extinguishing methods are not suitable - certainly not if water is in the extinguishing agent. Extinguishing lithium fires is an important research theme worldwide, but to this day it has not yet led to an extinguishing method that has proven to be successful.

The exact risk of fire and explosion depends on the type of battery. Lithium ion is after all a collective name for a large number of different active materials that can be in the battery. Some examples:

  • Lithium cobalt oxide: popular in consumer devices due to its high energy density, but relatively unsafe.
  • Lithium manganese oxide: provides a lot of power and is used in electrical tools, among other things; is safer but has less capacity than lithium cobalt oxide.
  • Lithium-nickel-manganese cobalt oxide (NMC): high capacity, high capacity and relatively safe; popular in e-bikes, among other things.
  • Lithium-iron phosphate: often used as an alternative to lead-acid batteries in, for example, lift trucks; one of the safest solutions in the market.
  • Lithium titanate: long life and quickly rechargeable, but expensive; one of the safest batteries in the market that is used, among other things, in electric cars.

Strict regulations

Due to the risks associated with lithium batteries, transportation is subject to strict rules. These rules differ from country to country and from modality to modality. Stricter requirements apply to air freight than to sea freight or road transport. Moreover, the regulations are constantly changing. The reason is that the manufacturers of consumer appliances and electric vehicles put a lot of money into the development of lithium batteries. As a result, the specifications change with great regularity, with the result that the safety requirements also have to be adjusted.

In practice, it appears that the requirements for the transport of lithium batteries are often underestimated. If a load is incorrectly packaged or does not have the correct labels and documents, it can lead to delays and disruptions in the supply chain. In addition, the authorities - in the Netherlands the Environment and Transport Inspectorate (ILT) - can impose hefty fines.

Four tips for safe and unhindered transport

It is clear: the transport of lithium batteries by plane is subject to strict, complex regulations. How should you deal with that? You are better prepared with the following four tips.

Tip 1: Choose the correct packaging method

Most transports concern end products that depend on lithium batteries in their energy supply. The question is whether the batteries are mounted in the device or are supplied as a separate part in the product packaging. The first option presents the least risk: the device acts as an additional protective layer for the battery. Mounting the battery in the device requires extra handling during production or assembly, but the transport is therefore bound by less strict rules and possibly also cheaper.

Are the batteries packaged separately, for example, in a shipment to a consumer product manufacturer that incorporates them into its products? Then the risks are greatest and the requirements the strictest. The packaging must meet special requirements and the battery itself must not be charged more than 30 percent. In many cases, transport by passenger plane is prohibited. The amount of lithium batteries per package is also limited. One shipment may not contain more than 35 kilograms of the heaviest type. Since January 1, 2018, the packaging of lithium batteries with other dangerous goods is strictly prohibited.

Tip 2: Use the most recent safety data sheet

A material safety data sheet (MSDS) or a safety data sheet must be present for each hazardous good. The magazine contains, among other things, the classification of the product and the associated risks. Every shipper is obliged to provide that sheet to the logistics partner who is responsible for the transport. This does not always happen, with the result that the logistics partner sometimes googles itself and the first downloads the best MSDS. The question is whether that is the right document. So always include the most recent MSDS.

The legislation has changed very often in the last five years, with the result that the MSDS also has to be revised again and again. This adapted document does not always penetrate every link in the logistics chain. Consider, for example, a manufacturer of consumer products who purchases lithium batteries for their devices from a supplier. The question is how well the manufacturer is aware of any changes to the specifications of the purchased batteries. It still happens that a shipment is accompanied by an MSDS from 2007 or 2008. That cannot be right.

Tip 3: Consultation with the logistics partners

Anyone offering a shipment of lithium batteries to a logistics partner for the first time would be well advised to coordinate this with this partner. Are the batteries installed in the device or are they included in the product packaging as a separate part? What is the capacity of the batteries? What does the transport package look like? Are there any other products in it than just lithium batteries? Sharing information facilitates cooperation in the chain, prevents misunderstandings and reduces the chance that laws or rules are overlooked. Are there doubts? Then call in an experienced expert.

Tip 4: Add the correct documents and labels

The final tip concerns the packaging. It must contain the correct documents and labels with symbols. Consider the "air waybill" or air waybill, but also the shippers' declaration in which the shipper declares that dangerous goods are packaged in accordance with the Dangerous Goods Regulations (DGR) of the IATA. The labels must contain the symbols that apply to specific shipment batteries. For example, this can be a "cargo aircraft only" label in the event that the shipment is not allowed on a passenger aircraft. Sometimes the brand of lithium batteries must be mentioned, as well as the weight of batteries in the package.

Do you want to know what requirements have been set for your shipment with lithium batteries? Then use the decision aid that has been prepared by the experts of Special Cargo Services (SCS), partner of DSV. Based on a number of questions such as the packaging method and the capacity of the batteries, this decision aid will guide you in a few steps towards advice on the packaging used, the required documentation and the legally required brands and labels.

Lithium batteries in air freight

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