Why are some batteries so difficult to ship?

  Have you ever wondered how batteries are transported safely around the world? Maybe you’ve never considered the potential hazards the humble double-A could pose? Well, with so many devices taking power from cells and batteries these days it is important to recognise that shipping electrical items and the batteries that power them isn’t always straight forward.

What are the hazards?

Not all batteries are considered hazardous, but there are many different types available and some present different risks than others. Most batteries contain corrosive chemicals, which present an obvious hazard if the casing becomes damaged and it leaks. This is generally the main hazard with single-use batteries and, provided they are packed to certain specifications, they can be transported on both passenger and cargo aircraft.

Lithium batteries, which are used in rechargeable devices like mobile phones and laptops, present a different hazard; they can combust and explode if damaged, which in a confined space on an aircraft could potentially cause catastrophic damage. For this reason, lithium battery shipments are treated very seriously by the International Air Transport Authority (IATA) and are heavily regulated for air travel.

How can batteries be safely transported?

Guidelines for safely packing and shipping batteries are set out in IATA’s Dangerous Goods Regulations (DGR), and the requirements vary depending on the type of battery being shipped. Generally, provided these regulations are followed and state and operator requirements are met, shipping batteries is no harder than any other hazardous material. However, when it comes to lithium battery shipments, things can become a bit more complicated. Let’s take a look at lithium batteries in more detail:

There are two main types of lithium battery:

  • Lithium ion
  • Lithium metal

Each type is treated differently in the DGR, so the procedures for shipping a box of lithium ion batteries are different to shipping a box of lithium metal batteries. Therefore, when we look at a lithium battery shipment the first question is what type of lithium batteries do we have?

The second question we ask is how are the batteries packed? There are three ways in which lithium batteries can be packed:

  • Lithium ion/metal batteries
  • Lithium ion/metal batteries packed with equipment
  • Lithium ion/metal batteries contained in equipment

Each of these have their own Packing Instructions in the DGR, so a parcel is treated differently depending on whether it contains batteries only, batteries and equipment, or batteries installed in equipment. This is because of the amount of inner packaging protecting each individual battery within a package. Let’s look at an example:

Parcel A contains 20 batteries, each individually packaged in a plastic blister pack. The amount of space and material between each battery in the parcel is quite small.

Parcel B contains 20 of the same batteries, but this time each battery is packed on a foam tray inside a box, which also contains a mobile phone. It’s bigger than Parcel A because it contains more and this means the amount of space and material separating each battery is also bigger.

Parcel C contains the same 20 batteries as A and B, but they are now each installed within a mobile phone, which is packed in the same way as in Parcel B. Each battery is encased by a phone in a foam tray inside a box.

Now imagine that one of the 20 batteries in each parcel is defective and starts to heat up to the point of combustion (a process known as thermal runaway). In parcel A the batteries closest to the defective battery have very little protection from the heat it emits and could in turn become damaged to the point of combustion. In parcels B and C, there is more space between each battery to allow the heat to dissipate safely, and there is also a lot more material protecting them. Batteries in parcel C gain extra protection from the mobile phone itself.

Put simply, there is less risk in shipping lithium batteries that are contained in equipment compared to batteries packed “loose”, and this is reflected in the regulations. Of course, it’s never quite that simple; there are specific requirements and restrictions for each type of battery, but Exporter Services has experienced and certified people who can take the difficulties of shipping batteries off your hands.

If you would like to know more about shipping batteries, or need help with a shipment, please get in touch; we’re happy to help.