Time to take charge of lithium battery moves

Amid a number of recent fire incidents affecting container transport, ro-ro ships and air cargo movements allegedly involving lithium batteries, international freight transport insurer TT Club is calling for increased vigilance to ensure a secure safety environment for the fast-developing supply chains of this increasingly common component.

The market is exponentially increasing through consumer demand for a wide variety of rechargeable products from handheld devices to power tools and electric vehicles. Recently recorded incidents of container fires caused by, or suspected to involve lithium batteries, as well as conflagrations of significant proportions on car carriers and ro-pax ships mean that safety concerns rightly continue to grow amongst the maritime community. In addition to which revised regulatory restrictions regarding the carriage by air of lithium batteries, which took effect from 1st April, may result in greater volumes being transported by surface modes.

“Understanding the risks is crucial,” comments TT’s Risk Management Director, Peregrine Storrs-Fox. “As with many successful technologies, market demand has outpaced the development of safety regulations. Since the mid-1980’s lithium batteries have been classified under dangerous goods regulations for transport based on the weight of lithium contained in the cells or batteries and the potential hazard presented by a given battery is also related to the amount of lithium it contains. However, as technology has advanced, the amount of energy derived from the active material has increased by up to 50%, leading to regulatory mismatch where provisions are essentially framed around mass and energy output.”

Lithium batteries are required to be certified to an international standard involving a rigorous series of tests performed by an approved independent testing laboratory, to ensure they can both withstand everyday use through their expected lifetime and the rigours of transport. Responsibility for testing and achieving certification rests with the shipper and/or manufacturer. The sharp rise in demand has been accompanied by supply of cheaper, poorer quality and untested batteries, including refurbished and even homemade power banks. E-commerce platforms have facilitated a global trade in potentially lethal products, often circumventing global standards and regulations.

Throughout their intermodal journey the primary risks exist when batteries are poorly manufactured, untested or defective; these have a higher propensity to malfunction. However, supply chain risk – at any point of handling, storage and transport – is compounded by used, fully or partially charged batteries. As such the reverse logistics of batteries must be carefully managed; damaged and faulty products being returned or shipped as waste for disposal or recycling present increased risk.

The consequences of lithium fuelled fires can be more extensive than others. They are very difficult to extinguish, prone to thermal runaway and present an explosion risk. Due to the heat generated, re-ignition once a fire has been extinguished is an additional risk. In the unforgiving maritime environment, where the crew capability to fight fire is strained, the hard lessons learned by land-based fire responders, particularly relating to electric vehicles, need to be assimilated.

“The majority of shippers will take all practicable steps to ensure that their lithium batteries achieve certification and are classified, packaged, packed, labelled and declared correctly. A small – frankly criminal – minority are motivated to avoid compliance, entering cargo into the supply chain that presents great risk to all,” Storrs-Fox observes. “Once lithium batteries are placed into the intermodal supply chain, there is little opportunity for the cargo to be checked, visually or otherwise to verify compliance. For all who are contracted to transport, handle or store lithium batteries therefore, developing a thorough understanding of this particular cargo is a prudent step. Moreover, due diligence into the origin of manufacture and integrity of the shipper instigating the move of these potentially lethal power sources is critical.”