Improving Air Safety for Lithium-ion Batteries

The threat of battery-related air disasters is a growing global risk, but Underwriters Laboratories is part of a major effort to advance the safe transport of lithium-ion batteries.

Improving air safety for lithium-ion batteries

The exponential rise in the use of small electronics, handheld devices, small medical devices, wearables and more has led to the widespread use of lithium-ion batteries, many of which aren’t thoroughly vetted for safety. Air transport disasters are among the leading safety risks presented by these small, lightweight batteries, which hold significant amounts of energy relative to their size.

As a widely recognized expert resource for fire and battery safety science, Underwriters Laboratories helps ensure that safety practices keep pace with innovation. Greater battery power means greater risks to aviation safety, and UL research has shown how lithium-ion battery failure- even in a single cell- can lead to thermal runaway, with potential catastrophic effects. As an independent, trusted, non-commercial advisor that leverages the expertise and change-making power of action-oriented science and industry leaders, we are collaborating broadly to help address this critical issue in portable energy storage and transportation.

We are employing a multipronged approach to address high-priority issues in aviation battery safety by leveraging core capabilities and recognized technical expertise in conjunction with existing Safety Management Systems (SMS):

  1. Market Research: Conduct quantitative and qualitative market research to understand priority risk scenarios and perceived challenges; utilize findings to inform scientific research agenda and raise awareness of issues. 
  2. Lithium-Ion Battery Research: Conduct applied research to determine boundaries of safety and identify optimum risk mitigation.
  3. Code & Standards Development: Interface with regulatory bodies, government and industry to share data and ultimately affect regulations to elevate the safety of battery transportation via air.
  4. Advocacy: Act as a technical advisor for non-commercial aviation battery safety efforts, with a focus on battery cargo safety and related supply chain.
  5. Training: Train first responders on best practices regarding the safe inspection of lithium-ion batteries, as well as containment and suppression of lithium-ion battery fires.

The growing threat of battery-related aviation disasters

In the wake of several battery fire-related air cargo disasters, aviation stakeholders have expressed particular interest in advancing lithium-ion battery transportation safety standards for both cargo shippers and passenger planes. However, the industry has yet to establish uniform protocols, and so the aviation community has reached out to the UL for help to develop a holistic solution.

Li-ion batteries hold a significant amount of stored energy and pose a serious risk of thermal runaway, which can lead to a catastrophe. During thermal runaway, the high heat of the failing cell can spread, making the adjoining cells thermally unstable. An entire battery shipment can be destroyed within a few seconds or burn for hours as the cells are consumed.

Making UL an indispensable safety partner

Dr. Tom Chapin, Ph.D. is an experienced material scientist and UL's Vice President of Research. He is involved with aviation safety research and dedicated to improving battery safety for aviation, from supply chain to battery chemistry and beyond.

In 2013, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) launched an investigation into an incident in Japan in which a battery fire downed an empty Boeing 787 Dreamliner. This was one of two battery-related air disasters within 10 days. UL was summoned for its expertise in battery safety, and Dr. Chapin led a 22-person team across three countries that looked at aircraft charging systems and studied batteries on a cellular level.

They worked to answer two key questions: 1) Why did the batteries fail? 2) Why did aircraft certification miss the probability of these events?

This sparked the UL’s interest in solving this problem. From 2014 to 2017, Dr. Chapin embarked on architecting and executing five global summits focused on battery safety in aviation, mobility and other devices. In 2017, this work came to focus exclusively on battery safety in aviation.

 

“Over UL’s 124-year history, we’ve worked for the safety of the general public. Today, we are bringing over a century of resources and expertise to aviation. Pilots now recognize the value of UL and the head of the FAA’s Office of Hazardous Materials Safety called us ‘an indispensable partner.’ This recognition is an honor.”

Dr. Tom Chapin, Ph.D.

Vice President of Research, Underwriters Laboratories

 

Pursuing new global safety standards

Dr. Judith Jeevarajan is Underwriters Laboratories’ Research Director for Electrochemical Safety and has more than two decades of experience as a battery safety specialist. She also participated in the Boeing air disaster investigations in her previous role with NASA and worked on the battery redesigns that emerged from these incidents.

Dr. Jeevarajan participates in the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA), which sets standards for the FAA, and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which sets battery transport safety standards for the UN, with a special focus on lithium-ion batteries. Through ICAO and the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE)she helped the UN shape regulations for the safe shipping of li-ion batteries. This is a major part of how UL is influencing global battery safety from the standpoint of policy and standards.

Recently, Dr. Jeevarajan has been part of a formal UN working group recategorizing li-ion batteries in response to rapidly changing technology. Li-ion batteries are currently classified according to the mass/weight of lithium, but the team is moving to recategorize them based on the results of rigorous safety testing. Among other things, the committee is crafting all-new packing standards.

 

“UL remains committed to this research and to producing highly valuable firsthand safety knowledge that industry and policy stakeholders will need in order to improve battery safety in the air.”

Dr. Judith Jeevarajan

Research Director for Electrochemical Safety, Underwriters Laboratories

 

Conclusions

The threat of battery-related air disaster is a global risk that will only grow along with the rising use of lithium-ion batteries. Without improving practices and policies at every step, from manufacturing to packaging to transportation, the risks will continue to increase. Stakeholders worldwide agree that it’s not a matter of if, but rather when.

In light of this, UL is dedicated to applying its expertise in battery safety science, standards development and outreach to develop a new global framework that will advance the safe transport of lithium-ion batteries and minimize the risk of air disasters.

Fast Facts

  • Underwriters Laboratories is part of a consortium of stakeholders dedicated to advancing aviation battery safety.
  • Efforts to advance safety include market and scientific research, standards writing, policymaking, data sharing and more.
  • Our goal is to establish a new global framework for advancing the safe transport of lithium-ion batteries to minimize the risk of aviation disasters.