Transportation issues rules on lithium batteries

Finally mastered how many three-ounce bottles of liquids you can carry on to a commercial flight and figure you can now breeze through airport check-in? You might need to think again.

The Transportation Department has issued new rules, effective Jan. 1, 2008, governing transportation of the lithium batteries used to power a range of electronic devices, including portable computers, cell phones, personal digital assistants and cameras.

The department has advised travelers that they can no longer pack spare lithium batteries in their checked baggage, and instead must put them in carry-on luggage. And the batteries should be in their original retail packaging, have their tips covered by electrical tape or be in a clear plastic bag.

Lithium batteries are considered hazardous materials because they can overheat and ignite under certain conditions. Safety tests conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration have found that aircraft cargo fire suppression systems would not be capable of putting out a fire if a shipment of nonrechargeable lithium batteries were ignited during a flight.

Doing something as simple as keeping a spare battery in its original packaging or a reclosable plastic bag will prevent unintentional short-circuiting and fires, said Krista Edwards, head of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

"This rule protects the passenger," said Lynne Osmus, FAA's assistant administrator for security and hazardous materials. "It's one more step for safety. It's the right thing to do and the right time to do it."

Under the rules, travelers can carry on batteries with up to 8-gram-equivalent lithium content. According to the Transportation Department, all lithium ion batteries in cell phones and nearly all batteries in laptop computers are below this threshold.

George Kerchner, executive director of the Portable Rechargeable Battery Association, said popular electronic devices used by federal employees -- including BlackBerrys and Panasonic Toughbook computers -- are well below the limit.

Kerchner said travelers can determine whether a battery meets the threshold by multiplying its voltage by the number of amp hours listed on the battery. If that number is below 100, then the battery meets the carry on-rules.

Travelers are unlikely to get additional hassles at airport security over their carry-on spare batteries, Kerchner said. "The key issue here is to keep batteries out of checked baggage," he noted.

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