Safety risks need to be addressed

Carriage of lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles and personal devices needs careful consideration

By Felicity Landon

In the drive for decarbonisation, the sea transport of increasing numbers of electric vehicles (EVs) is inevitable. It’s a reality that is raising safety concerns and driving discussions around seafarer training and regulatory requirements.

Once again, we have been reminded of the dangers associated with the transport of lithium-ion batteries on board, with one seafarer dead and many others injured in the fire on board the Fremantle Highway off the coast of the Netherlands in July. As many as seven seafarers were forced to jump overboard, facing a drop of about 30 metres into the sea. Injuries included burns, broken bones and breathing problems.

Nearly 500 of the cars on board were EVs and it is believed that one of these was the source of the fire. But lithium- ion batteries and the risks they present are not, of course, restricted to cars.

Earlier this year, the Cargo Incident Notification System Network (CINS) produced guidelines for the safe transport of lithium-ion batteries in containers – seeking “to prevent the increasing risks that the transport of lithium-ion batteries by sea creates”.

The guidelines consider extensive measures for the safe transport of “an exponentially increasing volume of lithium-ion batteries, in their various states of charge and when also contained in electronic devices”, including classification and regulation, container packing, landside storage, stowage on board, incident detection and fire suppression, and loss prevention and risk mitigation.

“We strongly urge all stakeholders in the production, supply, transport, handling and sale of lithium-ion batteries, whether as individual components or integrated into an electronic device, vehicle or other product, to recognise their responsibilities in maximising safety when in transit,” said Dirk Van de Velde, deputy chair of CINS and a board member of ICHCA, the association of cargo handlers. “Our guidelines will create greater awareness of the possibilities of the damaging and life-threatening incidents, which have already occurred, and instil more urgent motivation to act before more catastrophic disasters result.”

Fire safety lacking

Some reports (so far) suggest that EVs do not catch fire any more frequently than internal combustion engines (ICE) – “but when you have a lithium-ion fire, it is an awful lot nastier than a normal ICE car fire,” says Peregrine Storrs-Fox, risk management director at the specialist freight insurer TT Club. “We have seen enough to know that one EV is enough to make a really nasty, hot fire that will set fire to a lot of other things on a ship.”

When thermal runaway happens, the result is the release of toxic gases such as carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide, and a very high temperature fire that can spread very fast, he warns.

Fire safety regimes at sea are “not really up to scratch” for this type of fire, says Storrs-Fox. “It goes from fire detection through to fire suppression – that’s one debate. And the crew themselves are given a limited amount of fire training. OK, it’s on an ongoing basis, but if you think about fire services on land, they are training a whole lot more regularly. Crew are primarily employed to run a ship, not to fight fires, so when they do get a fire, they are already on the back foot and may well have limited capability.”

Land-based fire experts say that basement fires are the most difficult to deal with, he points out. “Imagine a ‘basement’ fire in the hold – the crew are expected to go down ten storeys.”

The industry as a whole is not “grasping the nettle” when it comes to battery technology risks, says Storrs- Fox. “There are established industry gatherings for vehicle manufacturers and OEMs around battery technology. But most sessions are talking about changing chemistries and technologies, how to charger faster or how to get more energy out of less material. I don’t see any focus on how these products have to be stored and moved, and how they are going to engage with the transport and logistics industry and do this more effectively. I don’t see anything that considers how they engage more effectively with emergency responders so they are better prepared.

“My frustration is that these conferences seem to concentrate on making things faster, bigger, better, more successful from the battery technology perspective but they are not focusing on the risks and the need to engage with others as part of a broader ecosystem.”

The International Maritime Dangerous Goods code revisions are due to be finalised by the IMO at the end of this year, for approval in 2024, but these will not be mandatory until January 2026 and no material changes are expected to the way lithium-ion batteries should be carried, classified and packaged.

Storrs-Fox wants to see improved regulatory clarity. He describes current/ proposed regulations as “almost a backstop”, while what’s needed is for the maritime industry to work with the OEMs, manufacturers and responders to assess the risks and how to address them.

New cargo challenges

With questions increasingly being asked about fire safety on board as the demand for electric vehicles grows, The Swedish Club organised two webinars entitled ‘Fire! Electric vehicles on board – should we be worried?’ and ‘Fire II: Electric vehicles on board – being prepared’.

The P&I club’s claims director, Johan Kahlmeter, said: “It is rare that the industry faces dealing with totally new cargoes in significant quantities, and yet that is the unique challenge that we face with the carriage of electric vehicles on board ships. These vehicles are tightly loaded, large values are at stake, and a safe haven might be far away. It is essential that all those on board are given access to the latest safety and loss prevention advice.”

Speaking at the second webinar, Captain Filip Svensson, senior safety quality and security manager at Wallenius Wilhelmsen, said: “We firmly believe that transportation of EVs does not present any bigger fire risk at all.

We have, though, put restrictions on the state of charge of the electric vehicles that are loaded on board our vessels, and we have restricted that to a maximum 30% state of charge. We firmly believe that the lower state of charge you have, the longer time it will take before a battery goes into thermal runaway. Also, before loading an electric vehicle we will check the dashboard for any signs of abnormalities and if there are any warning signs, the vehicle will not be loaded. We also introduced a few years ago that all alternative fuel vehicles are properly marked on the loading plan so that the crew and officers on board know exactly where they are stored.”

In fact, said Svensson, Wallenius Wilhelmsen’s biggest concern has been second-hand ICE vehicles. Leading on from this, it is not allowing the transport of second-hand EVs, as the risk is considered much higher “and we don’t really know how the vehicle has been treated, etc. So, we feel that the risk for transporting second-hand EVs is much, much higher, and that is why we are not allowing that anymore.”

Safety steps

At the same webinar, Martin Carlsson, who works with Stena Teknik on ro-ro and ro-pax fire safety, said that Stena Line had taken a series of steps in response to the increasing number of EVs. This is a situation that can be handled with training and adjustment of equipment, he said.

At the time of booking and at check-in, Stena confirms that it has a registration on board for the fuel type of each vehicle, as part of the cargo manifest connected to the licence plate, he said. “So, if there is a situation on board, we will have fast access to information on what fuel type a certain vessel has. We will update the fire patrol instructions, what signs of malfunction and emerging risk situation that we can expect from electric cars.”

Traditionally, Stena would be looking for fuel leaks and heat, etc., but there are more and different signs of problems for an electric car, “and we have to be aware of that”, said Carlsson.

The on board drencher system performance is equivalent for both EVs and ICE cars and would be sufficient for suppressing fire on these cars equally, he noted. “This was proved by testing done by LASH FIRE (the international research project aiming to reduce the risk of fires on board ro-ro ships) some months ago. The drencher system will then prevent the fire spread to the next car and has even seemed to slow down the thermal runaway in the electric car. This is basically due to the fact that the drencher will supress or even extinguish the fire in the remains of the vehicle and thereby reduce the heat impact, the heating of the battery.”

Hydrogen fluoride gas has been brought up as a big concern, said Carlsson. “Yes, that is a toxic gas and is seen in higher concentrations for lithium- ion battery fires compared to other fires, but the levels that are in practice present in a car context are shown to be lower than previously feared.”

The fire suits worn by the land-based fire services following the standard EN469 2020 Level 2 will protect the crew well, said Carlsson, but using the basic SOLAS-level fire suits will likely not be sufficient. “We need to raise the standard to the same level as fire suits used on the landside now.”

He also emphasised the need for crew training in the theories around the lithium-ion battery and the firefighting methodology. “It is not so different from classic firefighting, but there are different hazards to be aware of.”

Stena will be putting additional gear on board, including portable sprinkler devices and fire blankets, he said. “These devices have their use applicability and limitations which we have to be very aware of, but they would be in relevant cases an asset to us.”

As well as putting in more fixed water systems to reduce the need for manual water application by crew, Stena will make sure that there is full CCTV coverage of all decks. “We will make sure that the areas where we would store electric cars will have the best possible CCTV coverage, again to reduce the need to go there.”

New tech, new risks

While this is an exciting time for the maritime industry, with new technology comes new challenges and safety risks that have not been seen in the past, says Rafal Kolodziejski, head of product support and development at survival technology specialist Survitec.

“One of the most visible trends we observe today is the drive towards greater sustainability, shifting towards more environmentally friendly fuels and introducing new legislative requirements to help reduce greenhouse emissions. Electrical propulsion with energy storage space on ships or electric cars with lithium-ion batteries is another direction to support new environmental legislation.”

An EV battery fire is different to any other type of fire in that the battery generates explosive and toxic gases, increasing the size and propagation of the fire, says Kolodziejski. “Therefore, the heat is more intense, and an extinguished fire can reignite at any time until the battery is completely burnt out. This presents a real challenge for gas-based fixed fire systems, such as CO2. Traditionally, such a system has sufficient gas for just one discharge in the event of a fire.

Currently, the classification societies propose that double the gas volume is provided, but this may not be enough to control fire or prevent reignition.”

Survitec has had a number of customers asking for fire suppression systems specifically for alternative fuels as well as lithium-ion batteries, he says. “We’re working with shipowners, shipyards and class societies on this.

Traditional safety management methods have often focused on what happens once a fire has already started,” says Kolodziejski. “But with the risks and safety challenges associated with the use of new fuels and technologies, there is a focus on detecting pre-fire conditions and other preventive measures. If fires can be detected before they start, we can ensure that crews can better mitigate the risk and, should a fire start, contain it quickly and safely to minimise damage.”

Survitec developed its fire safety system monitoring and control solution, SMARR-TI, to give early warning of changes and then to enable swift action to prevent a fire from happening.

“A graphical visualisation of the fire systems on board the vessel is paired with real-time status updates and notifications, so crew receive early warning of any changing conditions,” says Kolodziejski. “In the event of a fault or alarm, crew has full visibility of the location of the alarm; the equipment at their disposal; and the ability to deploy systems automatically where possible, allowing them to take swift, decisive action to prevent or contain a fire, and protect on board safety.”