The Fire Peril: Fire + Explosion Risk of Lithium-Ion Batteries on Cargo Ships

John Gow

Fire/explosion is one the top three causes of total losses in the shipping industry.

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Earlier this year, the cargo ship Felicity Ace caught fire and sank while crossing the North Atlantic. Carrying close to 4,000 automobiles, including the Volkswagen ID.4 and Audi e-tron electric cars, some sources speculated that the lithium-ion batteries in the electric cars ignited the fire. However, it is unknown whether an electric car was actually the cause.

While there are many cargoes that can self-heat, ignite a fire and put the crew and ship at risk, the Felicity Ace accident drew specific attention to the potential dangers of transporting lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries and electric vehicles (EVs) on cargo ships. Li-ion batteries, and specifically those in EVs, are of particular concern in the maritime industry as the risk of fire or explosion on board is significant.

Challenges of Lithium-Ion Battery Fires

Fire/explosion is one the top three causes of total losses in the shipping industry. Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty (AGCS) marine risk consultants report that the number of fires on board large vessels has increased significantly in recent years, with a record 40 cargo-related fires in 2019. Roll-on/roll-off vessels and large container vessels are specifically at higher risk of fire with the potential for greater consequences.

Li-ion batteries can store up to four times more energy per unit of mass than other batteries, with potential fire/explosion risks increasing as the amount of energy stored by the battery increases. Large-format Li-ion batteries, such as those used in EVs, may tend to catch fire more quickly as opposed to smaller, encased Li-ion batteries used in smartphones, laptops and power tools. Common causes of Li-ion battery fires may be related to internal manufacturing defects, physical damage or substandard quality, internal electrical failure (overcharge, over-discharge, short circuit), and thermal runaway issues.

It should be noted that, while there are concerns about EVs, some commentators have suggested that there isn’t enough information to conclude that EV fires are more frequent than fires involving vehicles with internal combustion engines. At a presentation hosted by the Nautical Institute London Branch, one manufacturer stated they had been selling EVs since 2014 and, since that time, only verified three lithium-ion battery fires in their vehicles. However, a recent FOI request discovered a significant increase in fires caused by electric vehicles, with London topping the table at a recorded 507 fires in the past five years, 69% of the total for the rest of the UK.

Li-ion battery fires can also be more difficult to manage and extinguish than normal fires. Li-ion battery fires are intense, can produce a significant amount of toxic gases (usually early in the failure), and have the potential to reignite hours, days or weeks later. Typically, a ship’s firefighting capabilities and fire protection and detection systems are not designed to deal with Li-ion fires. Once a fire takes hold, it can easily get out-of-control, spreading beyond the ability of the crew or fire protection systems to manage. This can result in the crew abandoning the vessel on safety grounds, increasing the risk of losing the vessel with significant environmental damage and financial loss.

Implications of Misdeclared or Undeclared Cargo

A separate but related issue that adds to Li-ion fire/explosion risk is non-declaration or misdeclaration of hazardous cargo, such as self-igniting charcoal, chemicals and batteries. Misdeclared, undeclared and poorly packaged cargo only adds to the danger as it puts the lives of seafarers, rescuers and others at risk by making responding to the fire more challenging.

According to the National Cargo Bureau, 2.5% of inspected imported dangerous goods containers were found to include misdeclared cargoes that represented serious risks to the crew, vessel or environment. For example, a container illegally loaded with discarded lithium batteries was traveling on the highway to the Port of Virginia. Improperly identified as “computer parts,” the batteries caught fire and burned a hole through the metal container’s structure, resulting in the loss of cargo and significant damage to the shipping container. This situation could have been potentially catastrophic had the container caught fire after being loaded on to the container ship.

Mitigating the Risks of Li-ion Battery Fires on Cargo Ships

Although unified standards and legislation have not been established for safe storage and transport of lithium-ion batteries, AGCS offers several recommendations to prevent fire and loss. These include:

  • Transporting only batteries that have been verified as meeting industry standards and testing requirements.
  • Ensuring batteries are only partially charged per manufacturers recommendation (approximately 30% to 50% state-of-charge).
  • Following packing instructions and training staff on dangerous goods issues and recommendations.
  • Providing enhanced training and awareness to seafarers on Li-ion firefighting techniques.
  • Employing early detection systems, including watchkeeping and fire rounds, thermal scanners, gas detectors, heat and smoke detectors, and CCTV cameras.
  • Implementing pre-defined emergency response plans to address damaged or overheating Li-ion batteries.

With regard to addressing the issue of undeclared or misdeclared cargo, the National Cargo Bureau produced a white paper with holistic recommendations, some of which have already been taken up by the industry. Other solutions might include:

  • Employing technology like thermal imaging cameras or AI-based screening software to identify, in real time, misdeclared hazardous cargo before loading.
  • Ensuring cut-off times for booking to guarantee sufficient time to review dangerous goods for acceptance and provide the opportunity to resolve any issues.
  • Knowing your customer” by gathering data about who you are dealing with. This can raise red flags regarding the cargo submitted for shipping and have a deterrent effect causing shippers to adopt a more diligent approach.

Jensen Hughes offers a wide array of marine forensics services to help you determine causation, spread, risk and consequences of fires on marine vessels. We utilize our global network of experts to deliver a rapid response to marine claims. Learn more here.

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About the author

John Gow
John is a highly experienced Fire Investigator who has provided expert testimony in fatal accident inquiry, criminal and civil court

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