We have all heard of batteries, we have all used them and as we progress away from fossil fuels, batteries are becoming more and more important to our everyday lives in the modern world.
In particular Lithium-Ion, found in our mobile phones and laptops to electric toothbrushes to vape pens.
We are now seeing lithium-ion being used in our cars and, in line with the Governments Net Zero targets to cut Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 68% by 2030, this will require at least 46% of the UK’s 35 million non-heavy goods vehicles to be zero-emission.
According to the Climate Change Committee (CCC) , currently the most investigated and invested power source for these vehicles is lithium-ion.
In 2019, 2.3 million purely electric, lithium-ion vehicles were sold (with 1.3 million of those manufactured) in the UK, still a far cry from the 16 million needed to affect change.
The end of fossil fuels
2030 also brings the ban on the sale of all non-fully electric vehicles in the UK.
Assuming the same volumes and an average of 7,500 cells per vehicle, this equates to a requirement for just under 10 trillion cells per annum (the UK currently imports more than £104million British pounds worth of cells per annum) to withstand the UK’s minimum automotive manufacturing requirements.
Safe to transport or transport-safe?
But how do we transport these batteries safely? And is the current packaging and transit policies safe?
If we think about how petrol and diesel is transported around the UK, there are certain safety regulations and policies that must be adhered, mainly based on how many litres are being transported.
The regulations surrounding lithium ion and it’s packaging and transportation is not so clear cut.
Everyday millions of lithium-ion cells are transported around the world, but there have been a few incidents that has caused drama and danger when these batteries have “rapidly disassembled” (or blow up, to you and I).
You would think these complex mixes of chemicals and electronics would need to be packaged appropriately to ensure safety, but most of the time we see them being delivered in standard carboard boxes with a ‘UN340/1’ sticker, which is legal.
But what happens when this goes wrong?
5 years ago, a lorry carrying approx. a hundred cells caught fire on the motorway, lithium-ion cells firing off like bullets left right and centre - some making it to the other side of the motorway as they exploded with such force.
Thankfully, no one was hurt when this incident happened, but we must ask ourselves, how safe was this to begin with?
A number of external factors can cause a cell to react, such as heat and damage.
When this happens, if a few cells are packaged together this can cause a chain reaction and create a larger, more dangerous reaction than one alone.
The current regulations stipulate that cells must be separated by a divider, this is usually a blister pack, but this does not prevent a cell from creating a chain reaction and setting off other cells it is packaged with.
Safe but not sorry
Currently, lithium-ion is categorised as ''dangerous goods' as it has the potential to pose a risk, and IATA (International Air Transport Association) has strict rules around lithium-ion cargo on flights, highlighted by recent incidents such as a fire on a Boeing 777 freighter.
However, we do not see the same precautions taken on our roads. Royal Mail has placed lithium ion within their restricted goods list, which means that you cannot post and send lithium-ion with Royal Mail unless it is packaged within a device.
E.g., You can post a mobile phone that contains a lithium battery, but you are unable to send the battery alone.
Due to these rules in place, it shows that there is a clear risk posed with these items.
There are packaging companies in the industry that have developed specialised packaging that claim to be able to contain an event if a cell were to “rapidly disassemble”.
However these types of packaging solutions are more expensive than your standard corrugated box and therefore not cost effective for manufacturers and/or senders and are not a first-choice option.
But, I ask: what is more important, safety or procurement costs?
The shock of the future
If we were to look into the not-so-distant future we might see large amounts of lithium-ion car batteries that are defective in some way, batteries that were involved in crashes or floods etc.
We can assume that these batteries would need to be taken to recycling centres or incineration facilities.
The exact state of these batteries would be unknown and therefore would be potentially dangerous on our roads, endangering the public and the transporters.
More research into robust packaging and transportation policies is definitely needed.
Innovate UK and The Sustainable Innovation Fund are investing heavily into batteries for electric vehicles and sustainable packaging but are yet to fund sustainable packaging for electric vehicle batteries and components.
Who knows: perhaps a future challenge area?
You can go to the Innovate UK website
You can go to the Innovate EDGE website
You can go to the UKRI website