Earlier this month, United Airlines became the second major airline to announce that it will no longer carry bulk shipments of lithium-ion batteries. Delta Airlines stopped bulk shipments of lithium-ion batteries in February. The announcements followed fatal fires on two Boeing 747 cargo planes that may have been caused by lithium-ion batteries and a series of earlier incidents in which batteries are suspected as possible contributing factors.
Unease over lithium-ion batteries was further fueled by the recent release of the National Transportation Safety Board’s report on the January 7, 2013, thermal event aboard a Boeing 787 Dreamliner in Boston and two similar incidents. Those incidents led to the grounding of the entire Dreamliner fleet from January 16 – April 26, 2013. The NTSB and UL LLC presented a detailed summary of the report at the NAATBatt 2015 Annual Meeting & Conference last month in Phoenix.
Additional regulatory activity to limit the carriage and use of lithium-ion batteries in transportation and in stationary applications is almost inevitable. Intelligent regulation of lithium-based batteries that protects public safety should be welcomed by industry.
But there is a larger issue in the regulation of lithium-ion batteries that needs to be recognized: The danger to public safety does not come from lithium-ion batteries. Rather, the danger comes from the ubiquitous use of technologies by the public that demand that increasingly more energy be stored in increasingly smaller mass. The uncontrolled release of a lot of energy stored in a small mass will always be a potentially catastrophic event. The degree of potential catastrophe increases as the amount of stored energy increases regardless of the form in which it is stored.
Banning lithium-ion batteries is not the solution. Today’s lithium-ion cells will eventually be replaced by more powerful lithium-ion cells, or perhaps by lithium metal batteries, lithium sulfur batteries, magnesium batteries and the like. Each new generation of battery will be more powerful, and its failure potentially more catastrophic, than the battery technology it replaces.
Regulation of lithium-ion batteries should focus not on bans and prohibitions but on ensuring the adoption of systems that can reduce the risk or mitigate the consequences of a catastrophic, uncontrolled release event. The modern automobile is a good example of system risk mitigation. A often-told joke suggests that if the automobile was invented today, the government would ban it from the roads, as no regulator would ever approve a vehicle in which a tank of highly flammable gasoline is located just beneath the rear passenger seat. The reality, of course, is that modern regulators permit automobiles today, not because there is an absence of hazard, but because the automobile, as a system, is designed to ensure that the hazard is minimized. Regulation of automobiles focuses on ensuring that the system is designed to minimize the hazard (e.g., the Ford Pinto), not on banning the hazard itself.
We need to get to the same place with batteries. Technologies that rely on powerful, electrochemical energy storage are ubiquitous and energy storage is destined to become only more powerful and more ubiquitous over time. Simply banning the use or transportation of powerful electrochemical energy storage devices will ultimately be as useless and counterproductive as King Canute ordering back the tide. Regulations must focus on designing containment and event mitigation systems that can deal with this inevitable hazard, not just wishing it away.