The ABCs of lithium batteries and air freight transportation

By Geneviève Cournoyer-Scalise August 17 2020

Lithium cells or lithium batteries, lithium metal (Li-met) or lithium ion (Li-ion)? How are they different and what are their characteristics? What are they used for? What are their risk factors during transportation? How can we prevent these risks? Here are some easy answers to questions you may have!

Since they were created in the ’90s, lithium batteries have earned their place in the market for electronic devices and the electric car industry, thanks to their unique properties.

Considering that lithium is an ultra-light metal that can store a very high energy density in very small portable objects, it is not surprising they have become so popular. Nowadays, we find them mostly in electronic devices such as laptops, cameras, cellphones, video cameras, watches, medical equipment and electronic tools.

Whether you are a traveller, a consignor, or a carrier, it’s essential to be familiar with lithium batteries’ characteristics and restrictions due to their different levels of risk.

Lithium cell or lithium battery

First, it is important to clarify the difference between a cell and a battery. A cell is a single encased electrochemical unit (one positive and one negative electrode) with a voltage differential across its two terminals. A battery consists of two or more cells connected electrically and equipped with features such as casings, terminals, markings, and protective devices to ensure they work properly. As they are all connected to each other, those cells become a battery that allows a greater energy power. Even if there are batteries connected to each other in a single device, it does not necessarily result in a high-risk factor. In fact, their material component and their voltage level will determine the restrictions that should be applied during their transportation.

Li-Met or Li-Ion

There are two main categories of lithium batteries, those composed of a metal anode (Li-met) and those that function by transmission of lithium ions (Li-ion). A lithium metal battery is not rechargeable, but it usually contains a higher energy density that will run until the stored energy is used up. Li-Mets are normally found in objects such as calculators, pacemakers, remote car locks and watches.

One of the most important features of lithium-ion batteries is their recharging properties. On the other hand, their recharging capacity can lead to other failings due to overuse and might cause overheating problems over the time.

As a preventive measure, lithium-ion batteries are designed with separators to prevent the electrodes from touching each other. However, if the separator is damaged, the electrodes can touch each other, lead to a fire, and even create an explosion, since lithium is flammable. Cellphones, electric vehicles, laptops, power tools and drones all run on lithium-ion batteries.

Transportation and risks

Lithium-metal batteries are much more reactive than Li-ion batteries, so they are considered a greater danger for airlines. Consequently, they are almost banned by all airline companies, even aboard cargo flights. On the other hand, Lithium-ion batteries are accepted aboard most flights, but they are still heavily regulated by The International Air Transport Association (IATA), in charge of aviation regulations regarding safety and security.

Lithium battery transportation involves genuine risks such as a flow of corrosive liquid that can injure people or damage the environment and the possibility of short circuits that can cause a fire. Due to their specific properties, Li-ion batteries require special attention for transportation and handling since they cannot withstand cold (below 4 °C) or heat (above 40 °C). To limit the risks, certified packaging, which will protect the batteries against temperature variations and shocks during turbulence is required to ensure safe transportation. However, even if the batteries seem intact after their journey aboard a cargo plane, their condition can deteriorate in the hours after landing.

In June 2016, four batteries packed in a cardboard box were shipped by aircraft from Florida to Indianapolis and then onto Toronto as the final destination. According to the report provided by Canadian authorities, the batteries caught fire on a transportation truck more than 10 hours after they left the airport tarmac. The consigning company had to pay a heavy fine as they put several human lives at risk in addition to not complying with safety and security aviation regulations.

Considered as energy accumulators that store a certain amount of energy paired with a flammable element, lithium batteries are classified as dangerous goods by Transport Canada and they must comply with certain measures to avoid fire hazards. 

Voltage restriction

battery restrictions travel

In general, batteries with a voltage of 100 w/h and less are permitted to fly in accompanied luggage, so they can be shipped by cargo plane. Most of the time, they only require a simple note on the container and a content declaration document attached to the package. However, depending on the battery type, some of them must be packed by a certified professional in addition to a special note on the paper documentation that will accompany the package all the way to its destination. Even if the shipper sends electronic copies of declaration documents to the air carrier, the carrier must print the shipping document before attempting transportation and keep a copy on file as a dangerous good.

High-voltage batteries, over 100 w/h, must be checked before travelling by air freight. Even if some of them are professionally packed and have the required documentation, they still can be refused by air freight if their weight exceeds 35 kg. In that case, they will have to take another means of transportation to reach their destination.

Hints and tips

To overcome some restrictions, you should know that if the battery is already installed inside the device (contained in equipment), the rules are much less restrictive.

For example, a Li-met battery placed inside a watch can travel by cargo plane, but the battery itself without its device is prohibited from flying despite its small size. For cellphones, laptops or other electronic gadgets with lithium batteries, it is recommended to leave the batteries inside the device to avoid impacts between the electrodes since they are not only protected by the device itself, but will also be protected by the packaging provided by the manufacturer. Moreover, the hazard sign required when transporting dangerous goods will be present on the packaging and will be visible throughout its journey until its destination, which indicates to the carrier to handle this merchandise with great care.

If you are a traveller, your best option will be to take your lithium electronic devices with you in your carry-on baggage. Considering extreme temperature variations, potential shocks and vibrations during turbulence in cargo hold, you will limit the risk of damaging the battery inside your device and you will also avoid the risk of causing an incident related to transporting lithium batteries.

Still have doubts or specific questions about lithium transportation? Contact your airline or carrier. An expert will inform you about the procedure to follow to comply with the regulations in place according to your needs in terms of lithium battery transportation services.

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