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Starting Jan. 1, airline passengers will no longer be allowed to pack loose lithium batteries in checked luggage, the U.S. Transportation Department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration warned late last week.
Instead, passengers will be required to take loose batteries with them in carry-on baggage, packed in plastic bags. The new regulation, which will go into effect in order to lessen the risk of lithium battery fires, won't apply to lithium batteries that are already installed in electronic devices, such as laptops, cell phones, and cameras. Those can be checked in.
Additionally, only two spare rechargeable lithium batteries will be allowed on airplanes per passenger in carry-on bags.
The international rule will become U.S. law on Tuesday.
"Doing something as simple as keeping a spare battery in its original retail packaging or a plastic zip-lock bag will prevent unintentional short-circuiting and fires," said Krista Edwards, deputy administrator of the PHMSA, in a statement.
The administration is treating lithium batteries as hazardous materials since they're known for overheating and catching fire in some conditions. Tests conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration show that aircraft cargo fire suppression systems on airplanes are incapable of containing fires caused by nonrechargeable lithium batteries packaged in bulk quantities.
A small fire source is enough to ignite a lithium battery. The outer plastic coating can melt easily and fuse neighboring batteries together to increase the intensity of the fire, according to a June 2004 report published by the Office of Aviation Research.
In a situation where a lithium battery ignites in carry-on baggage, flight crews can better monitor the fire since they have access to fire extinguishers.
There have been several instances in the past year that have raised red flags about lithium batteries.
In October, a resident of Douglasville, Ga., claimed that his Apple iPod nano caught fire in his pocket. The iPod nano uses a lithium ion battery, which packs higher power density than a nickel-based battery.
Toshiba in June reported that a Sony lithium battery was responsible for a notebook computer bursting into flames. Since August 2006, Apple, Dell, Lenovo, and Toshiba have recalled lithium batteries used in notebook computers manufactured by Sony.