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What’s all the hype about transporting lithium batteries?

The subject of lithium metal and lithium ion batteries and cells is currently a hot topic in the transport industry. It’s all down to safety – the batteries can be unstable, especially under extreme changes in temperature.

As our thirst for consumer goods spreads across borders, our logistics and postal services are increasingly required to transport every kind of commodity, including these batteries, or items containing them. As eCommerce burgeons, so the risk increases and the concern grows too.

Two types of lithium batteries

There are two types of lithium batteries: metal and ion. A lithium metal battery is usually non-rechargeable and features a higher energy density than other non-rechargeable batteries. Lithium metal batteries can be found in such items as calculators, remote car locks, watches and even pacemakers. Lithium ion batteries were developed later and are considered more stable than their metal counterparts. Rechargeable, lithium ion batteries are also high energy density and are used in consumer products like mobile phones, laptops, tablets, power tools and electric vehicles. Both are apparently a cause for concern though.

As a result, the United Nations has designated lithium batteries as Dangerous Goods and the transport of them by road, rail, air and sea are governed by strict rules and regulations. The UN Committee of Experts (COE) on the Transport of Dangerous Goods has agreed nine global classifications on the Transport of Dangerous Goods in conjunction with various specialist groups, and materials are tested and assessed into these classifications. Lithium batteries are classified as Class 9 – Miscellaneous dangerous goods.

The regulations differ as to whether the batteries are

  • contained in the equipment - fitted or joined to the device - (e.g. a calculator, laptop or watch)
  • packed with the equipment (e.g. a power tool packed alongside a spare battery)
  • in lower quantities which may be covered by Limited Quantities, the lowest of the four levels of the Carriage of Dangerous Goods
  • in very small quantities - for instance, less than four cells or two batteries installed in equipment – which are not subject to all the provisions of the dangerous goods regulations.

European and UK regulations for the road are governed by ADR – a French acronym for  'Accord European Relatif au Transport International des Marchandises Dangereuses par Route'. The latest agreements for road transport came into force on 1st January 2013 on ADR ECE/TRANS/225 (Vol. I) and ECE/TRANS/225 (Vol. II).

Regulations for air transport are managed by IATA (the International Air Transport Association), who has published stringent rules for lithium battery shipping in their guidance material.


Are we being over-reactive regarding the safety of these batteries? After all, we are talking about a battery that can be smaller than a 10p piece. Plus, 2bn cells are produced every year. And to be fair, incidents caused by these batteries are rare.

The problem with the batteries is that microscopic metal particles may come into contact with parts of the battery cell, leading to a short circuit and risk of fire. Once ignited, it can cause any nearby batteries to overheat and catch fire as well, producing toxic fumes. Damaged batteries are also an issue, especially as it may not be apparent they are damaged until it is too late.

IATA is likely to point towards the UPS 747 crash near Dubai in 2010, which investigators found had been caused by a fire traced back to lithium batteries being carried in the cargo hold. More recently, Boeing’s new airplane, the 787 Dreamliner, was grounded around the world in 2013 because of lithium batteries aboard two of the planes overheating, causing intense fires. As a result, the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has banned lithium batteries being transported as cargo on passenger airplanes, but they are still allowed on cargo airplanes that do not carry passengers. In fact, lithium batteries being shipped to, from and through the USA are subject to additional limitations – see page 11.

The regulations around the shipping of these batteries, either a bulk shipment or just Limited Quantities, can be found on some useful flowcharts published by IATA, attached to this article as Appendix A and Appendix B. Class 9 hazard labels may need to be displayed and, in cases of larger quantities, a lithium battery handling label as well.

The UN has recently adopted a new special provision concerning the transport of lithium batteries, SP367. New packaging and labelling rules for lithium batteries must be adhered to and SP367 will be included in the next edition of ADR at the end of 2014. Current road transport regulations and details of what lithium batteries can and cannot be shipped, weights, sizes and quantities, can be found in ADR 2013 and those for air cargo in the IATA guidance documents.

Regulatory changes limiting the bulk transport of lithium batteries, etc came into force on 1st January 2013. However, IATA are calling for the measures to go even further.

In their regular briefings, the UK Department of Transport and industry are discussing whether a quality management scheme introduced into the manufacture of these batteries will help improve standards for safer transport, while considering the potential implementation costs to the industry.

For further information on the transport of items such as lithium batteries, see Limited Quantities guidance in the postal network.

Lithium Batteries (Metal) Guidance - Appendix A PDF

Lithium Batteries (Ion) Guidance - Appendix B PDF

About the author
Catherine Jackson is an NCTJ-qualified journalist and has been a publishing professional for over 30 years, working in newspapers, magazines, and marketing in the education, retail and travel sectors. She has also worked as a freelance copywriter, editor and proofreader before joining Asendia UK as Content Marketing Executive & Copywriter. Google+

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