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Last Updated 24th May 2019
Posted In: Guides & Advice | Transit Protection

Shipping Lithium Batteries.

Transporting lithium batteries by air, sea and road

Many people simply assume it is safe to ship lithium ion batteries. But this is not the case.

It is simply not possible to put them into any old box and send them, with a number of laws and regulations in place to ensure the safety of those transporting them.

In fact, there are a number of factors that come into play when trying to ascertain what packaging and method you should use when transporting lithium ion batteries.

These are governed by a number of UN regulations (specifically UN3480, UN 3481 and UN3090), as well as rules set out by various transport bodies (including the IATA – International Air Transport Association).

Battery packaging
Battery packaging for Lithium Ion is tightly regulated by various legislation, including UN3480, UN3481 and IATA specific rules

Looking at the list of criteria and influencing factors can be in credibly daunting, which is why this guide aims to provide you with a solid understanding of what is required.

Saying that, if you have any specific questions then you may find this list of FAQs regarding lithium battery packaging useful, or alternatively speak with an adviser at GWP who will be happy to help.

What are lithium batteries?

As the name would suggest, lithium batteries are used as a power source for a range of products, appearing in everything from electric cars to power tools and mobile phones.

But moving beyond the obvious, lithium batteries are commonly split into 2 differing categories – lithium metal batteries and lithium ion batteries.

Starting with lithium metal batteries, these are usually non rechargeable, and contain metallic lithium (hence the name).

They typically have a higher “energy density” than similar non rechargeable batteries, which means they are widely used to power items such as calculators, hearing aids, pacemakers and wrist-watches (basically anything where you wouldn’t expect to charge or replace the batteries that often).

Lithium ion batteries are the newer technology. They do not contain metallic lithium, but retain the high energy density of lithium metal batteries  but with the added benefit of being rechargeable. Although they are considered more stable and safer than lithium metal batteries, they still pose a significant risk.

Lithium ion batteries are in widespread use, found in items such as smartphones, tablets and laptops.

Lithium battery packaging
Lithium batteries are widely used in a number of tools, consumer devices and even vehicles

Problems with lithium ion

So why is shipping lithium ion batteries such a big deal? And why are there so many UN regulations (including UN3480) surrounding this?

Put simply, lithium batteries can be extremely dangerous – meaning they are technically classified as hazardous goods.

A number of unexplained aircraft disasters have been attributed to lithium batteries catching n fire during flights (including Asiana Airlines 747 near South Korea in July 2011, a UPS 747 in Dubai, UAE in September 2010 and a UPS DC-8 in Philadelphia, PA in February 2006).

These fires are usually attributed to the batteries short circuiting – something that can be solved simply with better, more robust packaging that is tailored to the products they are carrying (such as the Zarges aluminium battery packaging cases). Unprotected cells can cause an electrical short by touching, with propagation then causing a chain reaction that can release huge amounts of energy.

Lithium batteries can also be prone to “thermal runaway”.

What this basically means is that if the internal circuitry is compromised, an increase in internal temperature can occur. At a certain temperature, the battery cells begin to vent hot gasses, in turn increasing the temperature in neighbouring cells. Ultimately, this will lead to ignition – and fire.

As such, large quantities of batteries pose a significant safety risk, which is particularly acute when being shipped by air. A relatively small incident can lead to an uncontrollable fire.

As a result, lithium batteries are considered hazardous materials / dangerous goods, and must be handled, stored and transported accordingly (as set out in UN3480 and the supporting regulations).

Affected products using lithium batteries

The other reason that lithium batteries have garnered additional attention, is their increasing prevalence.

Now widely used in electrical cars, E bikes, power tools, mobile phones and a huge range of consumer electronics (everything from laptops to children’s toys), lithium batteries offer an excellent combination of performance, light weight and efficiency. They are also relatively cost effective to mass produce.

However, with increased use comes increased risk. Whilst shipping brand new batteries within products is relatively safe (although still governed by strict rules), returning damaged or used batteries for repair, recycling or disposal poses a serious risk.

Plus, with continued market growth in a number of products / markets utilising lithium batteries (with electric car sales expected to mushroom over the next decade and beyond), the increased risk has forced regulatory bodies to act.

UN3480 - Tightening of the rules on shipping lithium batteries

Due to the increased use – and increased risk – the rules surrounding the shipping of lithium batteries (both types) were overhauled

As highlighted earlier in this article, the danger posed by shipping lithium batteries is if the potential for them short-circuiting, and a s a result most of the new legislation focuses on the packaging and shipment rules – effectively aimed at ensuring this doesn’t happen.

Damaged caused by lithium batteries
Damage caused by Lithium batteries igniting can have disastrous consequences.

A very top level overview of this is as follows:

Packaging and shipping methods that ensure no batteries can come into contact with each other.

Packaging and shipping methods that ensure no battery can come into contact with a conductive or metal surface.

Ensuring all batteries are securely packaged to eliminate movement (within the packaging) during transit, which could potentially cause loosening of terminal caps or inadvertent activation.

UN3480, UN3481, UN3090 and UN3091 classifications

The shipping of lithium batteries are effectively covered by 4 pieces of UN legislation, although there are numerous specifics within these can influence the exact process you need to take to ensure safe shipping (or at least minimise the risk as far as is possible).

Lithium batteries are now effectively classified as Class 9 material – termed “miscellaneous dangerous goods”.

The specific UN regulations covering the shipment of these batteries are as follows:

UN 3090, Lithium metal batteries (shipped by themselves)

UN 3480, Lithium ion batteries (shipped by themselves) or, if inside a piece of equipment or packed separately with a piece of equipment as:

UN 3091, Lithium metal batteries contained in equipment; or

UN 3091, Lithium metal batteries packed with equipment; and

UN 3481, Lithium ion batteries contained in equipment; or

UN 3481, Lithium ion batteries packed with equipment.

UN 3480 battery packaging
Zarges K470 cases with appropriate inserts are able to satisfy UN3480 battery packaging regulations

Labelling Requirements

There are also differing labelling requirements for packaging that is to be used for the purpose of shipping lithium batteries.  These requirements differ depending mainly on the following 4 factors:

Whether the batteries are contained in the equipment being shipped(like a watch, calculator or laptop)

Are being packed alongside the equipment (like in a power tool, packed alongside a spare battery)
Are being shipped in small quantities (which may be covered by Limited Quantities – the lowest of the four levels of the Carriage of Dangerous Goods)
Are being shipped in what is defined as very small quantities, which are not subject at all to the provisions of the dangerous goods regulations (like two batteries installed in equipment).

Further details can be found the downloadable guide below.

Technical Information

The transit of any dangerous goods (which includes lithium batteries), must be organised by people with appropriate training and knowledge, or that the shipment itself is accompanied by qualified companies / experts.

Further technical information taken from the UN, IMO (International Maritime Organisation), ADR (The European Agreement Concerning the International Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Road) and IATA (International Air Transport Association) regulations can be seen below.

These set out the points that must be complied with (and checked / adhered to) depending on your mode of transportation.

General Rules (UN3480 / UN3481 regulations)

Applicable regulations; UN-No: 3480 (UN3480) or UN3481 Lithium-Ion Batteries and Lithium-Ion batteries contained in equipment or packed with equipment

Any Lithium-Ion batteries to be shipped are of the type proven to meet the requirements of each test set out in the UN Manual of Tests and Criteria, PartⅢ, sub-section 38.3

For full details please visit this resource created by the UN. 

Zarges case drop testing
A Zarges case undergoing drop testing to ensure it's suitability for shipping dangerous items

In accordance with the requirements of the UN Model Regulation, Chapter 2.9.4, the manufacturer of the battery or the battery pack shall make available (on request of the Competent Authority) the evidences that a Quality Certification program is in place in its manufacturing facility for Lithium-ion batteries.

UN-No: 3480 or 3481 Lithium-Ion Batteries and Lithium-Ion batteries contained in equipment or packed with equipment

ADR/RID Requirements (transit by road)

Class 9 Packing Group II, tunnel category E ADR/RID-Labels 9
Proper shipping name Lithium-Ion batteries, UN 3480
ADR Special Provisions 188, 230,310, 636 will apply and Packing Instruction P903, P903a and P903b.
Damaged and defective batteries: contact your National Competent Authority

For further information, please visit the UNECE website by clicking here.

IMO Requirements (transit via sea freight)

Class Packing group II IMO-Labels 9
Proper shipping name Lithium-Ion batteries, UN 3480
IMDG Code: Special provisions188, 230, 310, and packing instructions P903
EmS: F-A, S-I
Stowage category A
Damaged and defective batteries: contact your National Competent Authority

IATA-DGR Requirements (transit via air freight)

Class Packing Group II ICAO-Labels 9
Proper shipping name Lithium-Ion batteries, UN 3480
IATA: Special provisions A88, A99, A154, A164, packing instructions P965, P966, P967, P968, P969, P970
Damaged and defective batteries / waste batteries: Not allowed for transport by air.
For the IATA Guidance Document on lithium batteries, please click here to visit this resource.

Further guidance on battery shipping methods

Whilst the technical framework above provides legal instruction on how to ship lithium ion batteries, this can seem daunting and even confusing for those with no prior knowledge of such legislation.

As such, the following sections provide a simplified overview of the requirements for shipping lithium batteries via differing modes of transport.

Shipping lithium batteries by road

If your lithium-ion batteries are being transported by lorry for transport within Europe, you must ensure that you comply with all of the requirements as outlined in the ADR 2017 manual.

This is effectively the European Agreement that governs the shipping of lithium batteries by road / ground (and indeed that of any dangerous goods).

Shipping lithium ion batteries
Shipping lithium ion batteries via road networks (within Europe) is governed by the ADR 2017 regulations

Transporting lithium batteries via train requires you to meet  a different set of specific guidelines for the transportation of dangerous goods. These regulations are detailed in the Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Rail (RID) guidelines.

These regulations, when coupled with the ADR guidelines used for road transportation, effectively require similar packaging, processes and protections.

Shipping lithium batteries by sea

If shipping lithium batteries via sea freight, you will need to comply with the International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) Code. This document is updated every other year, meaning the 2018 Edition Amendment 38-16 is the current set of regulations.

In order to review the regulations set out by the IMDG Code, you must purchase a copy of the Code from the International Maritime Organization (or work with a packaging supplier that is familiar with these regulations).

Shipping batteries by sea
Shipping batteries by sea requires compliance with the International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) Code

Shipping batteries via mail / courier networks

Even if you are only shipping very small volumes of lithium batteries (and likely using a courier or mail service), the regulations still apply.

Most couriers have slightly different sets of additional rules and guidelines, but the following points will to cover most of the major points to consider:

Each individual package (i.e. a Zarges battery box) cannot contain more than 4 cells or 2 batteries – if contained in equipment.

The maximum net quantity of cells or batteries contained in one package cannot exceed 5kg.

The watt-hour rating must not exceed 20Wh per cell or 100Wh per battery.

Each cell and battery must be of a type that has been proven to meet the requirements of each test in the UN Manual of Tests and Criteria, Part III, section 38.3 (as also governed by ADR guidelines)

Cells or batteries that are defective are forbidden.

Cells and batteries must be protected against short-circuit (i.e. be placed in individual, non-conductive packaging)

The equipment containing cells or batteries must be packed in durable, rigid packaging that is unlikely to be damaged during transit. The items and must also be secured against movement within the outer packaging.

The sender’s name and return address must be made clearly visible on the outer packaging.

Shipping lithium batteries by air

Shipping lithium batteries by air is the most complicated of all forms of transit, due to the increased risk (i.e. and aircraft accidents caused by fire are likely to be fatal). With damaged batteries being blamed for aircraft crashes in the past, the shipping of damaged or defective batteries is strictly forbidden.

When transporting lithium-ion batteries via air, the Dangerous Good Regulations (DGR) must be reviewed and met. These regulations are governed by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

Zarges K470 aluminium cases
The Zarges K470 aluminium cases are perfect for international air freight, as they are tough enough to protect your items, whilst also being light to minimise transit costs

Responsibility

As the company or individual shipping lithium batteries, you are solely and wholly responsible for the shipment. You / your business will be legally responsible the event of any accident caused by the incorrect shipping of the batteries or not adhering to UN3480 and other regulations.

This is why it is not only critical to select appropriate packaging for your shipment(s), but also to work alongside a packaging supplier that can help and advise on this particular requirement.

Aluminium cases such as those customised by GWP Protective can be subjected to the appropriate tests before being put into full protection, giving you reassurances that your shipments will fully comply with all regulations.

For further details of the lithium battery packaging / cases available through GWP, please click here.

In Summary.

The importance of UN3480 / UN3090 regulations

Failing to use the right, UN3480 compliant packaging for shipment of lithium batteries could have dire consequences for your business. This could extend to significant fines, jail sentences for individuals within your organisation and the reputational damage of having caused a (potentially fatal) accident.

If you require advice and assistance regarding your lithium battery packaging, are interested in the Zarges aluminium battery cases tailored to this purpose, or need help with any of the applicable UN regulations, please get in touch with an expert at GWP.

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Richard Coombes, General Manager at GWP Protective

[email protected]
01722 416 440

About the Author: Richard Coombes

General Manager | GWP Protective

Having originally joined GWP Protective back in 2004, working on the factory floor, Richard now heads up the business as General Manager. [Read full bio…]

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