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No-fly lithium looks very possible

Fri, 11/20/2015 - 15:47 -- Gerry Woolf

There are few inside the battery industry who haven’t seen a video of a lithium-ion cell going into thermal runaway, shooting out flames and gas like some kind of giant firework.

There are enough battery specialists who can appreciate and calculate the release of energy from such devices and have the imagination to visualise the domino effect that could take place when one defective cell goes wrong in a pallet containing maybe several thousand cells.

There are plenty of battery specialists who’ve come across the unscrupulous and counterfeit battery manufacturers beyond the Middle East. Lithium-ion batteries are classed as dangerous goods for good reason: they store considerable quantities of energy and they can fail, due to faults in manufacture, poor quality control or poor design. Even the best have been caught out— GS Yuasa and Boeing.

Thanks to the US Federal Aviation Authority we now know that just ten18650 cells— a tiny fraction of those in a Tesla car, can create enough heat and gas to blow open a 737 cargo hold.

The situation gets worse if the cells are fully charged… partially-charged cells produce less gas, apparently. Long term, it appears that costly containment of lithium-ion cells and batteries would be the only risk-mitigation one could reasonably put in place, as is being formalised for the fixed lithium batteries providing back-up power in civil aircraft.

Containment will add to weight and cost and it doesn’t take a genius to see that manufacturers will be limited in the number of cells being air freighted.

Aviation is still incredibly safe— if you are one of these unlucky ones, IATA have shown quite conclusively that the number of “battery incidents” which have resulted in deaths is just one incident in ten years. Weather, loss-of-control and even depressed pilots have killed more.

But it’s not a comforting thought to consider that beneath your feet on many commercial jets is a stack of batteries that might just turn your plane into a flaming coffin at cruising altitude.

Even if no ban on air-freighting of lithium-ion happens wouldn’t it be pertinent for manufacturers to start considering global warehousing of the product and transport by sea and land? We now know the best fire suppressant, (halon) won’t work in a hold fire, so if such an event happens and you can’t land in minutes, it’s a catastrophe.

Once this story fully emerges properly in the public domain, rationality won’t prevail. Not carrying lithium-ion cells (as some carriers have already adopted) will be a sales advantage to freight carriers and passenger operators alike.

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