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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 (s TSLA) 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.