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Lithium battery problem worsens

11 February 2016

Lithium batteries are amazing things. They've finally made many previously impractical devices (such as electric vehicles) a reality.

By offering previously unheard of energy densities in terms of energy to weight and energy to volume ratios, the lithium battery has become an increasingly important aspect of modern technology.

Despite the fact that today's laptop computers are faster than ever, they now run for longer than ever on a single charge; something that is largely attributed to the switch from old nickel-cadmium or nickel metal hydride batteries (NiMH) to lithium ion types.

Neither the Tesla Roadster nor the Model S would be able to deliver the eye-watering performance or range that they do if they contained older lead-acid or NiMh cells.

Even your smartphone would not be a practical reality without the power of lithium polymer batteries that can squeeze many watt-hours of capacity into a cell that is just a few millimetres thick.

But we have a problem.

The problem isn't with the batteries themselves so much as the shipping of those batteries.

Okay, perhaps I lie... the reason that shipping is such an issue is down to the fact that these batteries have one unfortunate trait... they can become rather pyrotechnic with little advance warning.

We've all read the stories of someone's iPhone catching fire in the pants' pocket and causing nasty injuries -- or the bedroom that was incinerated when a smartphone being charged beside the bed caught fire in the middle of the night. Likewise there are plenty of videos on YouTube showing laptop computers bursting into flames, seemingly without any form of provocation.

And most recently there has been a spate of "hoverboard" fires caused by lithium batteries erupting in flames either when being charged or when the device is actually in use.

So it's obvious that lithium batteries can be dangerous -- and therein lies the problem.

Getting a lithium battery from one place to another (ie: from seller to customer) is becoming increasingly difficult.

There was a time when you could go online, order a big box of lithium batteries and have them delivered to your door by post in just a few days. Nobody was killed and although there was a fire in the Hong Kong Post Office a few years ago, the transport of batteries via this method was largely uneventful.

However, postal authorities around the world eventually decided that these batteries were far too dangerous to be carried by mail. Personally, I think this may have been little more than an acknowledgement that far too many postal carriers treat the packages they carry as footballs rather than precious cargo at times.

This left international airfreight carriers and couriers as the only resort for consumers wishing to buy lithium batteries online -- and all was well -- for a while.

Sadly though, one by one, the international carriers have also begun to decide that it's just not worth the risk of carrying lithium batteries and so that avenue is also now all but gone. As far as I am aware, the only remaining international courier who will deliver lithium batteries to New Zealand is the appropriately named TNT. DHL pulled out of the market some time ago and FedEx stopped carrying lithium batteries to NZ around the middle of last year, although they do carry them to other countries (WTF?).

As an avid RC model flier and someone who also uses lithium batteries as part of the electronics work I do, it's bloody annoying that I can no longer import many of the batteries I require for my work. What good is new technology if nobody is prepared to carry it for fear they might get their fingers (literally) burnt?

This ban on the carriage of lithium batteries has also seen extraordinary price gouging here in NZ. Batteries that I used to be able to purchase for NZ$14 including delivery to my door now sell on TradeMe for as much as $50.

If you're selling enough of these batteries you can bring them in by sea, by the pallet or container-load. Once they're here, you can add whatever margin you want to them because you know that your customers can no longer direct-import at competitive prices. What a rort!

So here we are... stuck on a small group of islands, miles from the manufacturers, having bamboo inserted under our fingernails every time we want to access a key technology that has been responsible for changing the technology around us.

And just a footnote for those who say "Hey, but you can buy these batteries from DX or Banggood and they'll ship them to your door for free"... well don't count on it. A number of Chinese online retailers will send the batteries to you via the postal system but if/when NZ Post detect them, all you'll get is a little note advising you that as they are a prohibitied item in the postal system, they have been destroyed.


Not so long ago a friend of mine ordered over $150 worth of lithium batteries which were sent via post. When he received the box, it was empty -- except for the NZ Post note advising that his batteries had been destroyed. Funny -- but expensive!

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