Lithium Batteries May Pose Fire Hazard, FAA Warns Airlines

<"">Lithium batteries are highly flammable and capable of igniting during air transport under certain circumstances, according to a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) alert issued on Friday. The agency urged airlines to take special precautions when transporting such shipments on cargo aircraft.

According to the alert, new research shows lithium batteries are sensitive to heat and can ignite in flight if transported in cargo compartments that get too hot. The explosive potential of lithium metal cells can easily damage (and potentially perforate) cargo liners, or activate the pressure relief panels in a cargo compartment, the FAA said.

Either of these circumstances can potentially lead to a loss of Halon 1301, a suppression agent found in Class C cargo compartments, allowing rapid fire spread within a cargo compartment to other flammable materials. For this reason, lithium metal cells are currently prohibited as bulk cargo shipments on passenger carrying aircraft.

The FAA recommends better identification and tracking of lithium-battery cargo shipments, along with “special attention to ensuring careful handling” of such cargo. Experts believe that limiting the number of batteries in a cargo container, or the total number on a plane, can substantially reduce risks.

The safety alert comes one month after UPS flight 006, a Boeing 747-400, crashed in Dubai. Though the cause of the crash has yet to be determined, the FAA said the plane was carrying a large quantity of lithium batteries in its cargo hold. According to a report from Bloomberg News, initial analysis of the plane’s on-board recorders showed a fire warning followed by smoke in the cockpit. The crash killed both pilots.

According to the same Bloomberg report, the National Transportation Safety board said in 2008 that lithium batteries had triggered fire, smoke or heat aboard aircraft 13 times from February 2001 to July 2007. A UPS plane was destroyed in February 2006 in Philadelphia after a fire probably began in containers storing electronic equipment, the NTSB concluded in 2008.

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