Lifting the lithium-ion lid

Better understanding and education are needed to protect crews from battery risks

By Line Skeidsvoll, Kerstin Knott and Brynhild Garberg Olsø

The shipping industry is rapidly moving towards batteries and ammonia for propulsion, both alone and in various hybrid solutions.

Batteries are often assumed to be mostly beneficial for smaller and domestic vessels. However, these assumptions are not necessarily accurate.

Batteries are already found in many larger vessels in, for example, the auxiliary system, spinning reserve, or utilised in strategic loading for diesel generators. Unfortunately, these battery systems carry with them the exact same number of hazards regardless of application.

Last year, SINTEF, one of Europe’s largest independent research organisations, carried out a preliminary study of hazards related to the use of lithium-ion batteries in a maritime environment, focusing on situations where a fire has broken out. After all, batteries are large amounts of tightly packed energy, which is ideal for such an event. Lithium-ion batteries also have the unfortunate property of self-sustaining with oxygen once they catch fire and might also produce toxic gases, such as hydrogen fluoride.

The aim of the study was to investigate if the current regulations cover the hazards related to the upscaled use of lithium-ion battery systems in maritime environments, from the time the battery system is designed until it is disposed of. The study contained a short literature study and a workshop with participants from battery system producers, shipyards, shipping companies, insurance companies and representatives from the Norwegian authorities.

During the workshop the participants identified hazards and challenges related to fire, existing rules and regulations, as well as improvement suggestions from their own experience. The following main concerns were highlighted during the workshop. First, there is a lack of holistic understanding regarding the use of batteries in maritime applications. When considering a battery system from the design phase until they are disposed of, there are several conditions related to the system that need to be fulfilled to ensure safe operation. These might be conditions like stable temperatures, correct ventilation, and a dry environment.

All conditions must be maintained throughout the lifespan of the battery system for them to be safe.

Education found lacking

Second, current educational courses in the maritime industry do not cover the fast-growing development and use of lithium-ion batteries. Battery systems are currently not part of the curriculum for seafarers in Norway and addition- al training is left to the ship owner or operator. The lack of knowledge and understanding of the hazards related to a battery system is dangerous, both for the individual as well as the environ- ment. Mistakes can be made without even realising it.

Third, there is a lack of co-operation between the different phases of design, construction, and operation. The workshop revealed a lack of safety communication between battery system producers, ship designers, shipyards, ship owners, operators, and rescue services. All parties fulfil their own requirements through rules and regulations, but few were inclined to assess if their requirements were sufficient for the application in question.

Fourth, there is often no formalised co-operation between the vessel crew and the rescue services. In case of an emergency, the responsible rescue services need information regarding the system, including ship and battery system, active and passive fire protection systems and status of the incident to evaluate appropriate safety measures. Important questions arise from these findings, such as what information must be readily available for the rescue services in case of an emergency and what information should be expected? If a fire and the rescue service is present, who is in charge of the operation? What can be done to prevent and mitigate an accident?

In the future, SINTEF is planning to investigate the topic from various perspectives: system safety, battery system components, and design of and safety measures for battery rooms, to help prevent accidents with lithium- ion battery systems in maritime environments.

In the meantime, education and training for all seafarers and a higher risk awareness regarding the use of batteries in maritime environments are crucial measures to make everyday life on board safer.

Line Skeidsvoll is a senior engineer and Brynhild Garberg Olsø is a senior adviser at SINTEF. Kerstin Knott is QA manager of the System Safety group at SINTEF Digital.