Ever since the 2009 editions of RID/ADR/ADN and ICAO technical instructions, demand for information about Lithium battery hazards has been high. This was particularly the case with respect to manufacturers and shippers, who the regulations affected. The regulations introduced a reclassification and separate UN numbers for Lithium metal batteries (non-rechargeable) and Lithium-ion batteries (rechargeable), new packing instructions and new requirements for transport. The 2013 edition of the ICAO technical instructions and related IATA Dangerous Good Regulations went further. It placed requirements on postal operators to understand how to deal with Lithium batteries and introduced numerous changes to the previous editions of the instructions. These regulations went into force on 1st January 2013 and created a surge in demand for information, training and emergency response from organisations across a wide range of industries.
So why bring about all these changes? Lithium metal batteries, found in watches and calculators, have been around for a while and the rechargeable lithium-ion version found in mobile phones and laptops, for around 20 years. However, steady growth in the consumer electronics industry sees them today comprising the majority of rechargeable battery sales and around 40% of all battery sales. The sheer number of lithium batteries in circulation increases the chances of something going wrong and increases scrutiny of their safe transport and use. An added problem is that consumer electronics are increasingly sent in public mail systems by untrained members of the public, who have little comprehension of the risk (let alone the regulations).
The first inherent risk is posed by the high energy level contained within the batteries. Early versions of the rechargeable batteries were based on lithium metal, which is naturally unstable and even more so under charge. The heating caused by the charging process, if causing the battery to reach the melting point of lithium, had the potential to cause a violent reaction. This was seen quickly following a few serious incidents, the products were recalled and significant efforts were made to improve safety. Lithium-ion batteries were a huge step forward, but not without risks of their own. Small amounts of other metallic elements present within the cells may cause short circuits and temperature rise. (The new technical instructions introduce quality manufacturing requirements). Separate to any inherent risk the batteries may pose, exposure to any fire carries a severe risk of bursting and release of dangerous gases such as the highly corrosive and toxic hydrofluoric acid.
Work is always continuing to improve the safety of battery technologies in a way acceptable to manufacturers, transporters, users and regulators both globally and nationally. But the technologies are so embedded into modern life that their risk is not going to go away.