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Summary:

A new report on the crash of a UPS jet carrying rechargeable lithium batteries outlines the hazards of transporting these devices. It’s the latest fuel for concern about the safety of lithium ion batteries, which store energy not only for gadgets but also plug-in vehicles.

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A new report on the fatal crash of a UPS jet carrying a large shipment of rechargeable lithium batteries suggests that safety issues still remain for transporting these flammable devices, which are used to store energy not only for mobile phones and laptops but also a growing fleet of plug-in vehicles.

The crash, which killed both pilots, occurred near Dubai on September 3, 2010. The Boeing 747-400F jumbo jet had departed Dubai International Airport on a cargo flight toward Cologne, Germany. At 32,000 feet, 22 minutes into the flight, the crew told air traffic control on the ground in Bahrain that warning systems on the cargo compartments indicated fire in the main deck, and that they needed to land as soon as possible.

The plane turned back to Dubai, and the crew donned goggles and oxygen masks. Less than five minutes after the fire alarm, according to the report, smoke entered the cockpit, ultimately engulfing it and obscuring flight instruments. Landing gear stopped functioning, and the jet flew over the Dubai runway. The 747 ended up crashing just south of the airport on a military installation.

Package details identified “many” shipments onboard the 747 as “lithium batteries and electronic equipment containing or packed with lithium batteries.” According to the investigators, at least three shipments contained lithium ion battery packs that met criteria for hazardous materials. They “should have been shipped as regulated materials….and thus should have appeared on the cargo manifest,” in accordance with international rules for the transportation of dangerous goods. (Technical instructions established by the International Civil Aviation Organization require all dangerous goods to be packaged, and generally also restrict the quantity per package based on the degree of hazard and the type of aircraft that will carry them.)

In other words, given the known risks for some of these battery packs, they should have been clearly marked for careful handling and special treatment. Yet the investigators found that “there were no declared shipments of hazardous materials onboard the airplane.”

The stated purpose of the  preliminary report, released on Sunday by the United Arab Emirates’ General Civil Aviation Authority, is to “inform the aviation industry and the public of the general circumstances of the accident.” As the Wall Street Journal notes today, the report comes on the heels of the U.S. House of Representatives approving an aviation bill that includes “a provision effectively blocking adoption of tough new rules under consideration to crack down on air transport of lithium batteries.”

A coalition of battery manufacturers, cell phone companies, and other industry groups have opposed measures under consideration by the Obama administration for ensuring safer transport of lithium ion batteries.

The UAE investigators caution that information could still become available that would alter the report. But it’s clear at this point that lithium batteries, given the wrong combination of elements, can be dangerous at various stages in their production, shipment, use and disposal.

Late in 2009, battery recycler Toxco attributed multiple explosions and a major fire at its storage facility in Trail, British Columbia, to an internal short in one of the batteries in storage. In years past, reports and photos of laptop fires caused by overheated lithium batteries have also stoked these fears.

Just last year, in response to the deadly UPS crash near Dubai, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a safety alert on transporting lithium batteries in the cargo hold of an aircraft. The FAA advised airlines to request that customers identify bulk shipments of lithium batteries, and to stow these shipments in sections equipped with fire-suppression systems. “Lithium-ion cells are flammable and capable of self-ignition,” the agency wrote. There can be a number of triggers for self-ignition, such as “when a battery short circuits, is overcharged, is heated to extreme temperatures, is mishandled, or is otherwise defective.”

More than a few venture-backed battery companies see opportunity where lithium ion batteries fall short, and they’re building part of their business case around promises to deliver safer and more stable batteries for electric vehicles, and at higher energy densities (in general, the higher the energy density of lithium-ion batteries, the more volatile the technology).

Today’s EV manufacturers say they have largely kicked the safety challenge. Of course, they would also prefer not to talk about what can happen in the rare event of a so-called “thermal runaway” (lithium-ion batteries blow up), because they don’t want to scare potential owners in such a new market. Last fall, when Tesla Motors recalled 439 of its electric Roadsters to fix a problem with a cable that could start a fire, the company made a point of noting that the possible fire risk did not in this case involve the battery pack or power system.

  1. More tabloid dramatization from Earth2tech!!

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  2. @Paul- hardly dramatization. A risk of the cobalt based Li chemistry has manifested itself in the unthinkable: The downing of a (cargo) airliner. Time for pause and new guidance for shipping, not dismissal.

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  3. @Paul, the story is on a substantial report of the accident and should be taken seriously.

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  4. I’ve been following this story since the crash. I agree it’s possible – perhaps likely – the li-on batteries started the fire that led to the crash. But, reading throug the report there is no forensic evidence to sustain that conclusion. No evidence, for example, that an insurance company could use to recoup any payout.

    In fact, the conclusion of the report makes it clear there are several lines of inquiry into the cause still at play in their investigation.

    What-it’s don’t resolve an accident. Better safety practices are always desirable. Their absence does not prove blame.

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  5. Tesla is the only auto maker using LiCo cells. Packaged in the vehicle they have significant thermal and electrical controls. All other car makers are using different chemistry, less prone to thermal runaway. The idea that this accident has any relationship to battery packs in EV’s is a stretch at best. Production EV’s have been extensively crash tested and suffered no battery fires or explosions. It’s possible that the cells on the plane were poorly made and/or not properly packed and shorted out or overheated at some point.

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  6. In a July 16, 2010, SlideShare PowerPoint presentation titled, “Lattice Energy LLC – Could LENRs be involved in some Li-ion battery fires?,” our company provided technical details alerting readers to the possibility that there could be additional little-known safety risks associated with advanced lithium battery technologies — please see document source URL = http://www.slideshare.net/lewisglarsen/cfakepathlattice-energy-llc-len-rs-in-liion-battery-firesjuly-16-2010

    Since then, two suspicious incidents have occurred on cargo aircraft overseas; the one in Dubai, which was the subject of the new government report covered in your story, resulted in fatalities.

    Lithium battery fires are typically difficult or impossible to extinguish. Any such ‘burning metal’ fires on any type of aircraft in flight would be extremely dangerous because they often burn very hot (several thousands of degrees Centigrade) and are able to generate their own oxygen as they progress through combusting battery materials. Unfortunately, depressurization of a cargo hold is a last-ditch but nonetheless futile measure to contain them because such fires create their own oxygen from oxide materials inside batteries and could in theory burn inside battery packaging when exposed to an external vacuum. Halon agents commonly used in aircraft Class C cargo holds are worse than useless for suppressing Lithium battery fires because, at the enormous temperatures of lightning-fast metal oxidation reactions, Halon is dissociated into violent chemical oxidizers that are far more potent than Oxygen (you might as well dump aviation gasoline onto the blaze).

    Even advanced Argon (inert gas)-chemfoam fire suppression systems that are currently being retrofitted into some FedEx cargo planes cannot successfully extinguish such metal-oxidation fires. Again, this particular type of fire generates its own supply of oxygen. Thus, ‘flooding’ the area of an initial fire with an otherwise very potent mixture of non-burning, totally inert Argon gas and specially formulated chemical foams will accomplish little more than perhaps — at best — preventing the fire from spreading even further to other nearby containers or pallets containing other types of combustibles.

    In our opinion, extremely large electric vehicle (EV) Lithium-based battery packs are potentially vastly more dangerous than other, much smaller types of Li-ion battery packs. The most potentially hazardous Lithium batteries of all are the ones that are not presently being shipped in significant quantities on aircraft. Once manufacturers begin high-volume shipments of EV battery packs as air cargo, the risk of additional catastrophic incidents involving large aircraft could multiply exponentially.

    For example, the latest-model Tesla Motors vehicle battery packs contain ~6,800 Panasonic Lithium-ion 18650 cells. Given what we think we know, the risks implicitly involved with poorly understood catastrophic failure modes associated with such large cell-arrays, complex hybrid parallel/series wiring architectures, sensors and microprocessor-controlled Li-ion electric power systems, could be many times greater than any laptop batteries currently being manufactured. FWIW: NASA-JSC (Houston) has also publicly expressed deep concerns about the long-term safety and reliability of huge EV Li battery packs.

    Lewis Larsen, President and CEO, Lattice Energy LLC

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    1. My earlier reply never showed up, I’ll try again. I’d say this is a bit of fear mongering. I know that at least one of the examples cited in the Lattice presentation was traced to a poorly assembled loose connection. Paste this into google for a PDF of the investigation: prius_fire_forensics
      Considering the billions of laptop and cell phone batteries and the very rare fires it’s obvious that spontaneous lithium battery fires are not a major concern.

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