US EPA highlights how to transfer lithium batteries

Lithium batteries power almost everything we use, from our cellphones and computers to our cars. However, used lithium batteries are not like other batteries that people might discard without a second thought and instead must be handled carefully.

To ensure lithium batteries are handled properly when being transported for recycling, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hosted a virtual seminar April 29. Panelists discussed how to prevent, reduce or eliminate  fire or explosions caused by the improper packaging, marking, labeling or disposal of lithium batteries.

 Chris Newman, an environmental scientist at the EPA, who hosted the webinar, said safely handling lithium batteries is important because usage is expected to grow.

“The forecasted growth in demand for lithium batteries is huge. Some sources say in the period between 2015 and 2030 the demand for these batteries will increase multiple times, while the number of applications will also increase,” Newman said. 

In 2015, 30 gigawatt hours (GWh) of lithium were used in the United States and that total wattage is expected to increase by 2045 GWh in 2030. Lithium batteries are unique from other battery chemistries because they have higher energy densities and voltages, could contain a charge in a dead product and their electrolytes are flammable if they meet air, according to the EPA.

Lithium batteries are hard to identify and remove from electronics, which could pose several issues for electronics recyclers, material recovery facilities, auto shredders and transportation providers. If they aren’t handled properly, lithium batteries could catch fire and explode, said Jordan Riveria and Neal Sushack of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), a branch of the Department of Transportation.

The panelists discussed the hazardous materials regulations (HMR) for lithium batteries and why they’re important. The regulations cover identification, communication and packaging rules that transporters should follow.

Sushack said three main factors ensure a company is compliant with HMR. These factors include classification, containment and communication.

The first step in complying with HMR is the classification of hazards. Everything from packaging, transportation and emergency response is determined by how a hazardous material is classified, which is important for lithium batteries. This is because they pose a much greater risk, Sushack said. 

“Classifying the hazard is the most important aspect of the regulations,” he said. “This is especially important for batteries.”

Nine hazard classes are available for specifying hazardous materials during transit. The two classes that mainly will be used when identifying lithium batteries are Miscellaneous and Class Nine Lithium batteries, according to PHMSA.

Lithium batteries have two types: lithium metal and lithium-ion. Both batteries can be identified by specific markings or their physical characteristics. For example, lithium metal batteries are cylindrical or coin cells, while lithium-ion batteries can be rectangular or a pouch pack. Batteries also can be identified using their United Nations identification (UN) numbers, UN3480 for lithium-ion and UN3090 for lithium metal.

Sushack said the energy capacity of the lithium battery is an important consideration; larger batteries and quantities are subject to increased regulation.

A lithium battery can be contained in one of two ways, depending on its size or the quantity being transferred. The goal of the containment is to prevent short circuits, damage caused by shifting and accidental activation of the battery.

If the battery is smaller, transporters must contain it in outer packaging, cushioning and inner packaging. The goal is to completely enclose the batteries individually and prevent them from contacting electrically conductive material.

Large packaging is required to transport a load of batteries more than 66 pounds. Bigger containers are also required if the lithium-ion batteries have 300 watt hours (Wh).

Outer packages need to be rigid and strong to protect their contents. They also must handle a 4-foot drop. Some options include fiberboard boxes and plastic or metal drums, Sushack said.

Proper communication while transporting batteries includes markings and labels that are visible on the outside of the container.

“This can help decrease the risk of a hazardous material incident that puts lives at risk,” Sushack said. “However, not all of these components are necessary for lithium battery recycling shipment. Smaller batteries are limited to package markings.”

Larger containers need shipping papers, emergency response information, package markings and labels, he added.

Some important labels to include when transporting lithium batteries include the battery’s UN number, shipment information and a contact number. The package must also include a cargo aircraft-only label, no matter how it’s being transported.

The panelists also covered how damaged batteries must be transported. They need to be individually packaged in a nonmetallic, inner package that completely encloses the battery. The Inner packaging must be surrounded by noncombustible, nonconductive and absorbent cushioning material.

“Damaged batteries present a unique safety hazard because they’ve been identified as being at an increased risk of producing a dangerous evolution of heat or short circuit,” Rivera said. “This thermal event could spread to other batteries that were not identified as at risk.”

The webinar concluded with the presenters discussing the various resources PHMA provides for education and safety. For more information, the webinar can be viewed here.




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