New US DOT Hazmat Safety Rule to Place Limits on Lithium Batteries in Baggage on Passenger Aircraft Effective January 1, 2008
Passengers will no longer be able to pack loose lithium batteries in checked luggage beginning January 1, 2008 once new federal safety rules take effect. The new regulation, designed to reduce the risk of lithium battery fires, will continue to allow lithium batteries in checked baggage if they are installed in electronic devices, or in carry-on baggage if stored in plastic bags.
Common consumer electronics such as travel cameras, cell phones, and most laptop computers are still allowed in carry-on and checked luggage. However, the rule limits individuals to bringing only two extended-life spare rechargeable lithium batteries (see attached illustration), such as laptop and professional audio/video/camera equipment lithium batteries in carry-on baggage.
"Doing something as simple as keeping a spare battery in its original retail packaging or a plastic zip-lock bag will prevent unintentional short-circuiting and fires," said Krista Edwards, Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
Lithium batteries are considered hazardous materials because they can overheat and ignite in certain conditions. Safety testing conducted by the FAA found that current aircraft cargo fire suppression system would not be capable of suppressing a fire if a shipment of non-rechargeable lithium batteries were ignited in flight.
(Above notice quoted from U.S. DOT Press Release, dated 12/28/2007).
In normal usage, the Lithium batteries (also known as Lithium-Ion batteries) which power many of our modern electronic devices, ARE SAFE.
Care should be taken, though, with their storage and transport - just as most anything else has certain precautions to follow.
In using your Lithium battery devices, you have probably noticed their tendency to get quite WARM at times, even in normal usage. The properties of a Lithium-Ion battery allow it to store significantly more power than other battery types - which is what has driven their popular usage in so many devices today. The Lithium-Ion formulation allows a large amount of power to be released in a burst - such as is needed to power a Digital Camera, or to boot-up your Laptop, to cite two very common examples. This rapid release of power from the storage cells generates Heat. Heat is also generated when moving a lot of power in the other direction - such as with those Rapid Chargers that many of us like. Either of these conditions generates the Warmth - sometimes uncomfortably Warm - that we encounter in normal operation. This normal Heat is, however, well within the temperatures that the battery pack is engineered to tolerate.
If the battery suffers a sustained rapid discharge of power, well beyond its designed discharge rate - such as happens when a 'short circuit' occurs - the battery can quite quickly get REAL HOT - to the point of Meltdown and Fire! This can happen with ANY battery type - I have seen it demonstrated with regular Alkaline flashlight batteries, and Auto and Forklift batteries, in various Fire Department presentations over the years.
The Lithium-Ion batteries have become infamous for this, though, because their rapid power release capability also allows the heat to build up much more rapidly than other battery types. A shorted Lithium battery can, literally, erupt in flames in a matter of seconds - as I experienced myself a while back, when a switch failure on a Cordless Drill shorted the battery (especially exciting if you're up on a Ladder at the time!). Their reputation also wasn't helped by one major Cell maker, which produced millions of Lithium cells with insufficient heat tolerance, over a period of years - leading to several major recalls of millions of Laptop batteries over the past few years.
Now - I don't want anyone to take this as a call to toss out your Lithium batteries. I certainly don't plan to toss any of mine. But it is WISE to know about the potential hazards, then take the proper precautions in handling your Lithium batteries. THAT is what I hope to impart here.
*** NEVER allow the various Terminals on your Battery to come into contact with each other! (That's what a 'short circuit' is - when the positive and negative terminals make connection in an unintended way.) ***
I applaud Ms. Edwards recommendation, in the Press Release above, of using plastic bags for your batteries. That provides a good basic level of protection, cheaply.
I do believe, however, that the Frequent Traveller (especially) should invest in a higher level of protection - such as close-fitting hard-shell plastic cases* - for their batteries. I am thinking here about the hazards imposed by batteries bouncing around in your baggage.....those baggage handlers can be quite rough at times, you know......and the chances of an accidental impact, to the terminal area on a battery, causing terminals to come into improper contact and short-circuit. It does happen......
* I wish to note that, at this time, I do NOT offer any 'battery boxes' for sale, and have no plans to. I share this idea freely, in the general interest of Public Safety. I think this could be a valuable market idea, for someone with a lot of small plastic boxes on their hands -- and likewise, I think that including an appropriate plastic box with a battery sale, would be a DANDY idea for sellers of spare batteries. So, I do actively invite those who are in the Box and Battery businesses, to take this idea and run with it -- in the interest of Public Safety.