Regulators move to put in place new rules for lithium battery shipments

US regulators are cooking up a range of ways to crack down on air-cargo shipments of computers, mobiles and other electronic devices that contain lithium ion batteries.

The decision, which was pushed following an explosive crash of a UPS Boeing 747 cargo plane full of such goods, now faces opposition from some of the biggest makers of those products. They claim the restrictions could impact on  industries that have come to rely on just-in-time shipments of batteries and equipment largely manufactured in Asia.

The Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration have been working on enhanced protections against the flammability of rechargeable batteries, sources told the Wall Street Journal.

However the US government thinks the new rules could help the industry in terms of better packaging, record keeping and limiting the size of battery shipments. Pilots will also be warned if they are carrying the dangerous cargo.

Comprehensive U.S. safeguards against battery-fed aircraft fires are expected later as part of a separate Transportation Department rule-making drive started months ago. That effort could formally classify lithium batteries as hazardous cargo, changing the way everything from hand-held electronic devices to batteries for electric cars will be packaged, tracked and distributed in coming years.

US aviation officials believe there is growing evidence that lithium batteries can pose serious fire hazards, particularly when they are crammed into the bellies of planes. If there is a short circuit or they overheat for some other reason they can ignite and burn intensely, and once on fire can be particularly difficult to extinguish.

However, Sony, Panasonic and Motorola aren’t happy about the decision arguing that these changes could add billions of dollars in shipping, packaging and employee-training costs, affecting workers and practices along already-fragile supply chains.

Other groups representing retailers and device makers have also waded in warning that a quick rule change could disrupt shipments to shops for the Christmas season.
According to government statistics, cargo airlines shipped over two-thirds of all lithium-ion batteries imported into the US last year. International shipments of laptops and mobiles totalled to more than $58 billion in 2009.

Last month a UPS jet in Dubai received warnings about a cargo fire less than half an hour after taking off from Dubai International Airport.

According to sources smoke in the cockpit was so dense that it obscured instruments, and both pilots died.