Caution: Improper Shipping of Lithium Batteries Can Lead to Tremendous Fines

TravelLithium chemistry batteries have been with us since the early 1990s. They pack lots of power for their weight and size, have no memory effect, and are lighter than older nickel metal hydride batteries. They are also potentially dangerous when mishandled, abused or incorrectly manufactured. The lithium used in these batteries is a highly reactive element which can ignite when exposed to high altitudes in its pure form. Intense heat or physical damage can rupture lithium battery cells causing fire or explosion.

AtBatt Laptop Battery CellsThe average rechargeable lithium-ion battery is created by packing cells the size of AA batteries with about 0.6 grams of lithium. When you put these cells into groups of 4 to 12 and arrange them in a plastic housing, you get your typical laptop battery or battery pack. These packs have a lithium content ranging from 2.4 grams to 7.2 grams. The maximum “safe limit” for shipping is 1 gram per cell and no more than 8 total grams of lithium per one battery. Each battery is made safe for normal every day use by installing special chips or circuits that normally prevent overheating, short circuits or over voltage; all of which could cause combustion.

Shipping LabelDue to cases in the recent past where batteries were igniting into flames from the incorrect manufacturing of lithium cells by Sony, the US government and others have labeled lithium type batteries as hazardous materials. This determination has brought on requirements like special labeling and packaging in order to ship these batteries. Pictured right is an example of a shipping label commonly used on packaging.

In the past, shipping lithium-ion batteries was not a problem or hazard. Shipping via FedEx, UPS, DHL, the US Postal Service, or any shipping service simply required “common sense packaging”. Making sure the battery was properly protected with adequate packing materials like bubble wrap, or foam peanuts inside a sturdy shipping box was simply shipping basics.

From an Aug 9, 2007 ruling by the Department of Transportation: as of January 1, 2008, certain regulations must be followed when shipping lithium-ion batteries. Shippers will be required to pass standardized testing defined by the United Nations on the transporting of dangerous goods (Section 38.3). In certain cases, shippers must have specific markings and stickers, as well as ship in specialized containers when shipping more than 12 batteries or packages containing 24 or more cells. Air transport by use of passenger aircraft will be limited as well within the 12 battery/24 cell limit.

Class 9 Shipping LabelThe rise of popularity in Primary Lithium battery usage has also raised a red flag in regards to transportation. Although not rechargeable like standard lithium-ion batteries, they contain a higher percentage of lithium per weight (1-5 grams). Fully charged like alkaline batteries, you simply install and use until they run out; and replace them when they are used up. Certain digital camera batteries are manufactured with Primary Lithium, as are batteries used in scientific and military equipment. These batteries are prohibited from transportation on passenger aircraft, and are considered more hazardous than regular lithium-ion batteries. Some of these primary lithium batteries in fact fall under the Class 9 Hazardous Materials classification, and require more special packaging and handling in order to ship. These Class 9 batteries can only be shipped via ground transportation, like trains or vehicles. Example of a Class 9 shipping label is pictured to the left.

Even now, airlines are prohibiting or limiting the number and size of spare batteries which you are allowed to take for your laptop in your carry-on luggage. Airlines are also limiting what you can take on in your checked luggage. You can look into the new regulations at

These new regulations have now expanded to regular shippers, and will further limit the choices consumers will make regarding the purchase of lithium chemistry batteries. Ultimately these regulations may cause prices to inflate due to the higher costs in shipping materials and manpower. The requirement of special safety documents when shipping overseas or USPS service to APO's and FPO's, may cause some shippers to stop offering such delivery services to these destinations.

Fortunately, the Department of Transportation has extended the deadline for compliance with these new regulations to October 1, 2008. They have also further extended the deadline for the UN testing to October 1, 2009- giving plenty of time for shippers to adapt the new rules and regulations, as many are still unfamiliar with these new changes and what they actually mean. Though shippers- both commercial and consumer, will be well motivated to learn and adapt to the discussed changes; each violation of these rules carry a fine up to $100,000, not to mention that one simple package can be deemed to have multiple shipping violations. It is in ever shipper’s best interest that they brush up on these new rules and regulations, before they find themselves facing astronomical fees!

Effective January 1, 2008
Types of Battery/Batteries In Checked Baggage In Carry-On Baggage
Lithium Metal Battery, Installed in a Device Permitted (1) Recommended (1)
Spare Lithium Metal Battery (Not Installed In a Device) (up to 2 grams lithium) Forbidden Permitted in Carry on baggage (2)
Lithium Metal Battery, Spare or Installed (over 2 grams lithium) Forbidden Forbidden
Lithium-Ion Battery Installed in a Device (up to 8 grams equivalent lithium content) Permitted (1) Recommended (1)
Spare Lithium-Ion Battery (Note Installed in a Device) (up to 8 grams equivalent lithium content) Forbidden Permitted in carry-on baggage (2)
"Special Case" Up to 2 Lithium-Ion Batteries, Spare or Installed (between 8 and 25 grams aggregate equivalent lithium content) Spare Batteries: Forbidden!

Installed in Devices: Permitted (1)
Spare Batteries: Permitted (2)

Installed in Devices: Permitted (1)
1. Although you may carry some devices and installed batteries in checked baggage, carrying them in carry-on baggage, when practicable, is preferred. In checked baggage, ensure that devices remain switched off, either by built-in switch/trigger locks, by taping the activation switch in the “off” position, or by other appropriate measures.

2. Be sure to take protective measures to prevent against short-circuits. Check Department of Transportation spare battery tips and how-to pages.