Hazardous Waste Q&A: Can You Ship Lithium Batteries?

Wondering if you can ship lithium batteries? Just take a look around any office, house, shop, or store. The answer, of course, is yes! Lithium batteries are shipped daily around the world. They are found everywhere and used to power everything from small electronic devices like pacemakers and smartphones to large vehicles like forklifts and citywide electric buses.

Shipping the batteries, however, is not a matter of packing a box and dropping it in the mail or at your local commercial carrier. Lithium batteries are regulated hazardous materials. Transport by any mode must be in compliance with regulatory requirements. Therefore, when shipping lithium batteries there are a number of safety-related measures and guidelines that must be followed. If you are wondering what makes the batteries a hazard and how to ship them, here are answers to some of the more frequently asked questions concerning lithium batteries:

What is a lithium battery?

By far the most important energy storage system on the market today, lithium cells and batteries power billions of rechargeable and non-rechargeable industrial, commercial, defense, and consumer devices worldwide. That’s because lithium holds unique properties that make it well-suited as a material for energy storage. In fact, the “battery” is actually a generic term for a family of lithium-based energy storage cell technologies derived from lithium, an alkali metal. There are two types of batteries commonly used by industries, organizations, and consumers—a single-use, non-rechargeable lithium metal or primary battery and a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. The former consists of metallic lithium whereas the latter consists of an intercalated lithium compound. Thus, the performance, properties, chemical composition, and safety vary with each kind of battery.

What are the risks?

Overall, lithium batteries are considered safe and not likely to fail. As a battery, the material offers a lightweight, high power, and high energy density energy storage solution. However, as an alkali metal, lithium is reactive chemically, highly flammable, and has a low melting point. Batteries that pose risks are those that have been damaged or are defective. When one lithium cell fails it can damage the cells nearby, which in turn can release even more heat, causing a combustible chain reaction known as a thermal runaway. A lithium battery’s high energy density makes it more susceptible to these types of reactions. If a battery is defective it can have a chemical reaction. If cell walls expand and the chemicals leak out, it too could lead to combustion. Batteries can fail due to improper use, storage, or charging. Damage can occur over time or immediately because of physical impact, wear, improper charging, and even exposure to temperature extremes (above 130°F or 54 °C and below 32°F or 0°C).

What are lithium battery shipping regulations?

Lithium batteries are classified as hazardous materials. When shipping lithium batteries they are subject to the Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMR; 49 CFR Parts 171–180) under the Department of Transportation. All packaging and standard hazmat labeling communication requirements apply. This includes proper markings, correct labels, shipping papers, and emergency response information. Those packing must meet hazmat employee training requirements. Whether shipping a single lithium battery, a pallet-sized load or any type of lithium battery-powered device, the packaging, handling, and shipping of it must be in compliance with the HMR for lithium batteries.

How can I ship lithium batteries?

As with any hazardous material, shipping lithium batteries by any mode of transportation—road, sea, rail, or air—must strictly adhere to the applicable guidelines and regulations. The modes of transportation will influence how lithium-ion batteries are prepared for shipment. If transport is intermodal, for example, by road and rail, then appropriate documentation must be prepared for each mode. If the shipment is by air transport, lithium batteries can only be shipped via cargo aircraft. Documentation must follow the International Air Transport Association (IATA), International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations that govern air transport internationally and domestically.

All the packaging and labeling for shipping hazardous material is the responsibility of the shipper, who must prepare the appropriate documentation and marking requirements for lithium-ion or lithium metal battery shipments as it applies to the mode of transportation(s). The preparation must be done by certified hazmat personnel to ensure that all requirements are met for packaging and labeling.

What are my shipping options?

Because lithium batteries are a hazardous material, selecting a reputable commercial carrier certified in shipping hazardous materials and dangerous goods is required by law. MLI Environmental is a certified carrier of hazardous material offering many services to its customers. Personnel are trained and certified to meet International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations for shipping hazardous materials by ground and air internationally and domestically.

In addition to carrier services, MLI also offers onsite services. We take on the liability of preparing and packaging your lithium batteries to ensure compliance. Our trained personnel will generate the required documentation and proper labeling, properly classifying and identifying the dangers and hazards as defined by DOT and IATA guidelines.

Even with the widespread prevalence of lithium battery-powered applications, the shipping and storage of the battery remain problematic. Because lithium batteries are extremely sensitive to heat and are inherently flammable, they are subject to regulations as hazardous material. Shippers play a vital role in reducing any risks and preventing any incidents to ensure compliance and safe delivery. Contact MLI today to discuss your hazmat shipping service needs or request a shipping quote!