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Shipping Li-Ion Batteries? Watch For Changing Rules

March 9, 2010
Robin Tichy, contributing columnist for Electronic Design, explains the rules regarding the shipment of Li-ion batteries, both rechargeable and non-rechargeable, and how they are changing.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) determines the rules for shipping lithium-ion (Li-ion) and other batteries, while several agencies that have adopted rules mandated by the United Nations govern international shipments.

The rules regarding the shipment of Li-ion (rechargeable) and lithium primary (non-rechargeable) batteries are confusing. Relatively large batteries currently ship as fully regulated Class 9 hazardous material, while smaller batteries are exempt. The rules seem to be constantly changing, but most of the changes have been implemented to harmonize the various agencies’ rules. New, far-reaching change is in the works.

The DOT published a notice of proposed rule-making that contains changes to the U.S. hazardous materials regulations (HMR). The new rule stopped short of a complete ban of transporting lithium-based batteries via aircraft as called for by the Airline Pilots Association, but the potential impacts of the rule are significant because the DOT is proposing to eliminate the exceptions in the HMR for air shipments of small Li-ion and lithium primary cells and batteries and equipment packed with or containing them.

In other words, if this new rule is adopted, virtually all Li-ion and lithium primary batteries and most modern battery-powered portable electronic equipment would have to be declared as fully regulated hazardous material for air transport. Only extremely small batteries would maintain an exemption.

The cutoff would be 0.3 g of lithium metal or 3.7-W-hour capacity. A 3.7-W-hour battery is a single Li-ion cell with a 1-A-hour capacity. That’s the capacity of a small cell-phone battery and less than most digital camera batteries. There are also changes to the guidelines regarding when a battery needs to be recertified for shipping. A copy of the rule is available in the federal register.


The DOT currently has a public comment period open through March 12, 2010. It is seeking quantifiable data on the impact of these new regulations on businesses. In an effort to buy time to assess the economic impact of the proposed regulations, the Portable Rechargeable Battery Association (PRBA) filed a request for extension, asking for an additional 60 days to be added to the comment period. The PRBA is an industry trade association representing cell manufacturers, pack manufacturers, recycling facilities, and equipment manufacturers. The DOT declined an extension of the comment period for the rule.

The DOT is committed to a conservative safety policy and will move quickly to remove the exemptions for smaller batteries. Because these changes seem inevitable, the battery and electronics industries need to understand how to adhere to the new rules and examine how these changes will affect companies and products.

The current regulations for shipping Class 9 hazardous material is summarized here: www.fmcsa.dot.gov/safety-security/hazmat/complyhmregs.htm#hm. You’ll find instructions for communications, labeling, training, record keeping, security plans, packaging, and loading.

Many battery manufacturers who will have products affected by the change already ship Class 9 material because they have a high mix of products. Many portable equipment manufacturers are not familiar and certified to handle Class 9 hazardous material because all of their products fell under the previous exemptions. Based on the current version of the proposed regulations, the following effects on equipment manufacturers and their distribution channels should be anticipated:

• Product labeling: The proposed regulations may require changes to existing labels or the addition of extra labels.

• Transport packaging: For domestic air, international air, and ground, the current bulk packaging will change so smaller batteries will have the same packaging requirements as larger ones.

• Carrier selection: Many carriers are not certified to or do not carry hazardous material, so there will be fewer carriers.

• Shipment cost and processing time: Carriers charge more to transport hazardous material. Also, expect more ground shipping, and thus longer transit times.

• Personnel training and certification: Shipping personnel will require initial and biannual certification.

• Recertification for design changes: The proposed regulation requires a recertification of DOT compliance if there is a material change in protective devices, hardware revisions, or software revisions. This change could result in multiple recertifications of a battery pack throughout the product life cycle.

• Recertification for capacity changes: The proposed regulation requires a recertification of DOT compliance if the battery capacity changes by 5%. The previous limit was 20%, allowing more flexibility for cell sourcing.

Overall, these changes will likely increase shipping cost and logistics. But these challenges can be overcome. Battery makers are already complying with the Class 9 HMR for larger Li-ion and Li-primary batteries, and their expertise can help their customers navigate the new regulations.


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