Although they may not seem like much of a danger on a day-to-day basis, a lot of people don't realize that all batteries are technically considered to be hazardous by their nature when it comes to the topic of shipping them. This is why, if a consumer goes to the United States Post Office to ship a package, one of the first questions they're asked by a representative has to do with whether or not their parcel contains any items like batteries that could pose a problem during transportation.
Any time you store large amounts of energy, as is the case with a lithium battery, it's inherently dangerous if things go wrong. If that battery is punctured, or if it overheats or short circuits, the best-case scenario is that the battery itself totally fails. When this happens to a lithium battery in particular, it goes through a process formally referred to as "thermal runaway." The internal temperature and the pressure of the battery rises faster than it can dissipate, and in a worst-case scenario, it can catch fire or even explode, even if it isn't being used at the time.
For that reason, above all else, it's critical to understand how you can safely ship lithium batteries and why these guidelines are of critical importance for all methods of transportation.
It's important to note that for the topic of this discussion, the term "lithium battery" is actually used to refer to a family of batteries, each with different-but-similar chemistries made up of various types of cathodes and electrolytes. Although battery types like lithium metal batteries, lithium-ion batteries and others are all technically different, for the purposes of shipping they are largely seen as the same and all rules, recommendations, and restrictions generally apply to all types.
Examples of lithium battery shipping labels.
What Are The General Restrictions For Lithium Battery Shipping?
The most important thing to understand about all of this is that different types of shipment have different rules governing lithium batteries. If you already know that a battery is damaged, defective or has been recalled by its original manufacturer, for example, it is restricted to ground transportation by law according to UPS. Likewise, it cannot be shipped to Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, or other areas such as Beaver Island, Michigan or Mackinac Island, Michigan during the winter.
Rules governing air shipments of lithium batteries are created by the International Air Transportation Association (IATA). It is itself an organization that sets and supports global standards for airline safety, security, efficiency, and sustainability. According to that organization's document titled "2019 Lithium Battery Guidance Document," there can be no more than two lithium batteries in any parcel that you happen to be shipping. Likewise, they must remain inside the electrical equipment they are used for at all times. In the example of a lithium-ion battery shipped with a laptop, you couldn't remove the battery and ship the two items separately. Not only does the battery need to remain in that laptop, but the device must be powered off in a way that it cannot accidentally be turned on during transportation.
These rules tend to bleed into the regulations set forth by shipping and logistics providers, too. FedEx, for example, will only accept cells greater than 20Wh and batteries equal to or less than 100Wh. So, while there is not technically a "weight limitation," the relationship between the battery's size and its capacity will essentially dictate that larger batteries are forbidden.
Likewise, you will need to make sure your package includes all relevant information, including but not limited to things like:
- The net weight in kilograms.
- The UN number.
- The proper shipping name, along with the shipper/consignee name and address.
- The UN specification packaging as required by PGII standards.
- A completed lithium battery mark or lithium battery label.
In most cases, the state of charge of the battery cannot exceed 30% of their rated design capacity, either. Finally, you will also probably have to pay a dangerous goods surcharge in order to actually send the package.
Other Essential Considerations
Overall, the shipping of lithium batteries is actually regulated by the Department of Transportation, and as a result, one needs to be trained and certified to actually ship them. Many online resources offer virtual classes to this end, with ComplianceTrainingOnline.com being just one of many examples. They currently offer a course called "DOT Shipping Lithium Batteries" that is designed to help people not only gain a better understanding of the rules and regulations that are in place, but to also learn how to practice them realistically in their own lives. Topics that are discussed in the class include, but are not limited to, ones like acceptable packaging materials, hazardous communication, ways to safely handle damaged, defective and recalled batteries, the classification of lithium cells and batteries and more.
The Department of Defense itself issued new standards to improve the safety of lithium battery transportation as recently as 2014. The final rule included several critical updates, including but not limited to things like:
- Packaging requirements for hazardous communication was outlined in greater detail.
- New shipping descriptions for lithium metal and lithium-ion batteries were adopted.
- Requirements or revised regarding the specifics of lithium batteries that are being transported for the purposes of disposal or recycling.
- New provisions were created that outlined the transportation of damaged, defective, and recalled lithium batteries.
- Provisions were revised outlining the transportation requirements for small and medium lithium cells as they relate to packages that also contain related equipment.
Technically speaking, private individuals do not necessarily need to follow the same regulations for shipping as a lithium battery supply. Having said that, with the strict rules outlined by many of the shipping providers that a private individual would be using, they often end up following them anyway. Organizations like FedEx or UPS dictate their own rules based on the recommendations of organizations like IATA. Likewise, since 2008, lithium batteries can no longer be placed in checked baggage if a private individual is flying on an airplane. They must be carried on board so that easy access to a fire extinguisher is available in the event of an emergency.
Thanks to the digital world that we're now living in, lithium batteries aren't going anywhere anytime soon. If anything, they're only going to become a more important part of our lives as time marches on. The stakes of this situation are incredibly high, however, especially if something goes wrong. It may be a burden for many to follow the strict and very specific regulations governing lithium battery shipping, particularly when they change depending on how that battery is being shipped. But when you consider that they're only in place to prevent the types of horrific disasters that could strike if a battery explodes in mid-air, it's easy to see why all this effort is more than worth it in the long run.