"Battling Blaze on a Burning Freighter: The Challenge of Lithium-Ion Batteries at Sea"

news 28-Jul-2023 Europe

Why is Extinguishing a Burning Freighter So Challenging?

Ship fires are already difficult to combat, and the presence of electric vehicle (EV) batteries further complicates the situation. Learn why firefighting becomes more complicated and what firefighters do in such cases.

While it is not yet confirmed whether the fire aboard the car carrier "Fremantle Highway" originated from one of the loaded electric cars, it is evident that burning lithium-ion batteries, commonly used in EVs, present a challenge for firefighting teams. On ships, the situation becomes even more complex.

What Makes Extinguishing EVs Difficult?

The core problem lies in the fact that burning lithium-ion batteries produce their own oxygen. This poses a greater risk during ship fires. Fires below deck on car transporters and container ships are typically extinguished using CO2, as explained by Uwe-Peter Schieder, a captain and expert from the Association of the German Insurance Industry. The idea is to displace or dilute the oxygen with CO2 to suffocate the fire. However, this method proves ineffective against lithium-ion batteries.

Is the Fire Hazard Higher in EVs?

According to auto insurers and Dekra, electric cars do not catch fire more frequently than traditional combustion engine vehicles. Nevertheless, when EV fires occur, they present significant challenges to firefighters due to burning battery packs.

How Do Firefighters Tackle Such Fires?

In a risk assessment compiled by professional fire departments and the Fire Brigade Association in 2018, water is recommended as the "preferred extinguishing agent" for burning lithium-ion batteries. The key is early and effective cooling.

For car carriers like the "Fremantle Highway," firefighting becomes particularly problematic, as the decks are tightly packed with cars. It becomes challenging for firefighters to reach the source of the fire with hoses.

How Are Shipping Companies Responding to This New Challenge?

From the perspective of the insurance industry, shipping companies have not adequately responded to the issue. In 2022, according to the insurer ACGS, fires were the leading cause of total losses, accounting for eight ship losses and over 200 accidents – the highest in a decade.

Expert Schieder attributes this to outdated firefighting systems, which have not kept pace with the size and fire loads of modern ships. Both fire detection and firefighting systems below deck require fundamental overhauls to effectively control most fires, especially those involving lithium-ion batteries.

The concern about battery fires is not limited to EVs, as lithium-ion batteries are found in various devices, from e-bikes, smartphones, to tools. Schieder points out that it is rare to find a container ship today without any lithium-ion batteries on board.

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