TT Talk - Lithium complexities
Lithium as a substance, and indeed lithium batteries, until around the mid-1980’s was classified for dangerous goods regulations under Class 4.3 (Substances which, in contact with water, emit flammable gases). Experts and regulators were persuaded that smaller batteries present reduced hazards compared to their larger counterparts through the supply chain. Therefore the criteria for classification was redesigned around the weight and power outage of the cell or battery. Consequently, lithium ion batteries are classified by the equivalent energy content in watt-hours (Wh), while lithium metal/alloy batteries are classified by the weight of lithium content in grams.
There are four different UN numbers for classification of lithium cells or batteries based on defined thresholds, being:
- Cells - for lithium metal/alloy cells, the lithium content is not more than 1 gram, and for a lithium ion cell, the watt-hour rating is not more than 20 Wh
- Batteries - for a lithium metal or lithium alloy battery the aggregate lithium content is not more than 2 g, and for a lithium ion battery, the Watt-hour rating is not more than 100 Wh.
The UN numbers are:
- UN 3090, Lithium metal batteries (shipped by themselves)
- UN 3480, Lithium ion batteries (shipped by themselves)
- UN 3091, Lithium metal batteries contained in equipment or packed with equipment
- UN 3481, Lithium ion batteries contained in equipment or packed with equipment
These are included within Class 9 (Miscellaneous dangerous substances and articles) on the basis that lithium batteries did not constitute a “substance”, rather they are “articles”. In normal use, of course, one would not encounter the lithium contained within a battery.
Special Provision 188 (SP188)
While recognising that there are various Special Provisions applicable to lithium batteries, the focus here is on one alone. On the basis that smaller lithium batteries present a reduced hazard, within the UN regulations SP188 exists to enable transport under specific conditions. Where lithium batteries or cells meet these requirements, when offered for transport they are not subject to other provisions of ADR/IMDG code. Notwithstanding qualification for transport under SP188, however, these batteries continue to be dangerous goods, presenting the same risks, rather on a smaller scale.
Notwithstanding qualification for transport under SP188, however, these batteries continue to be dangerous goods.
The qualifying criteria under SP188 starts by considering weight and energy content, specifying maximum weights and energy content for both lithium metal and lithium ion cells and batteries. The requirements proceed to focus on protection of the cell or battery, specifying the required packaging and considering protection from the risks of short circuit, particularly where cells or batteries are contained within equipment. Each package containing qualifying lithium batteries must, with certain exception, be marked with the appropriate lithium battery mark.
An important point to raise here is that because those lithium batteries qualifying under SP188 are not subject to other provisions of ADR/IMDG, beyond the marking of the packages (externally invisible once packed in a freight container), there is no requirement to notify the carrier specifically of the contents.
Cells and batteries that are not satisfying the requirements set out under SP188 are fully regulated for transport. Accordingly, such shipments must be declared and shipped as dangerous goods under the applicable UN number. Absent inspection or incident, bad actors will recognise the likelihood of being caught mis-declaring is remote.
Supply chain relationships are often complex, but actors need to be aware where liability may rest and undertake effective due diligence on counterparties and the presented cargo. Requesting a copy of the actual shipper’s Statement of Compliance could provide a useful check point in this process.
Actors need to be aware where liability may rest and undertake effective due diligence on counterparties and the presented cargo.
Importance of advances
Technological advances should logically result in review of classification. Lithium batteries have continued to decrease in size and weight, while being able to deliver increasing energy output through more efficient use of the active content. Advances in technology mean that lesser performing batteries could still qualify for inclusion under SP188, whereas newer more efficient batteries may not.
Advances in technology mean that lesser performing batteries could still qualify for inclusion under SP188, whereas newer more efficient batteries may not.
There is pressure from the manufacturing industry to increase the current criteria for qualification under SP188 to be inclusive of more powerful lithium batteries. This requires careful, independent scrutiny to ensure that the primary objective of only permitting the carriage of dangerous goods that satisfy specified safety provisions is achieved.
Mitigating the risk
As with many cargo types, the majority of shippers will take all practicable steps to ensure that their cargo meets specifications, achieves certification and is classified, packaged, packed, labelled/marked and declared correctly for transport. The small – frankly criminal – minority are motivated to avoid compliance, entering cargo into the supply chain that presents great risk to all.
Once lithium batteries, particularly those shipped under SP188 are placed into the intermodal supply chain, there is very little opportunity for the cargo to be checked, visually or otherwise to verify compliance. Due diligence is therefore critical: know your customer, understand their processes and satisfy yourself that they are taking the required actions in preparing and declaring the cargo correctly.
Due diligence is… critical.
Accurate, unambiguous and timely communication between contracting parties is also vital, ensuring that critical information is shared with all actors in a given supply chain.
History illustrates that the most catastrophic losses associated with the carriage of lithium batteries have unfortunately occurred so far in the air mode. All surface modes are, however, exposed to these risks. There may be fewer reported incidents, but a number of container fires are suspected to have involved lithium batteries. Furthermore, the technological advances, modal shift away from air and societal appetite for electric vehicles all point to an emerging risk.
The technological advances, modal shift away from air and societal appetite for electric vehicles all point to an emerging risk.
For all actors who contract to transport lithium batteries, developing a thorough understanding of this particular cargo is a prudent step, not least covering the safety aspect. Feedback from the industry indicates a number of ill-informed enquiries and additional documentary demands for such shipments, causing delays and frustration.
For some incidents at sea, it has fallen to an over-stretched crew to respond, with limited resources. Emergency response for lithium battery fires is already complex on land – whether in transit or during storage and handling. The risk is that once on fire the commodity is hard to extinguish and prone to develop rapidly, generating substantial heat. Early detection, possibly through thermal imaging, may be critical, but carriage at sea, potentially stowed where not readily accessible and adjacent to other cargo, presents an environment that is highly challenging to all involved should anything go wrong.
If you would like further information, or have any comments, please email us, or take this opportunity to forward to any others who you may feel would be interested.
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