Grande America Grimaldi Lines ship Credit VesselFinder
Grande America, Grimaldi Lines. Photo: VesselFinder

Lithium-ion (li-ion) battery fires on board containerships have already claimed a couple of high-profile victims, the X-Press Pearl and perhaps the Maersk Honam.

Less well understood, but still a great threat, is the risk posed by electric vehicles (EVs), which are stacked full of li-ion batteries, to car carriers, or the risks involved in the carriage of used EVs on ro-pax vessels.

The loss of the Felicity Ace in the Atlantic last year could well be a wake-up call to potential hazards – though the loss of the ship meant the cause of the fire is only suspected to have been an EV.

As a result of the elevated threat, the Cargo Incident Notification System, known as CINS, has been discussing how to mitigate the challenges from li-ion batteries, primarily looking at the units as they are shipped in containers.

However, as Capt Dirk Vande Velde, health, safety, security and environment officer at MSC and VP of CINS, explained to The Loadstar, the shipping of li-ion batteries in any form is “a bloody dangerous business”. But he added the risk to ro-ro vessels was clear, the growth in demand for EVs meant an increase in the threat. Moreover, one of the major methods of mitigating li-ion battery fires is to cool the flames with large amounts of water.

On a containership this is already very dangerous, but on a ro-ro vessel the destabilising effect of free surface water sloshing around a cargo deck could contribute to the loss of the vessel.

Demand for EVs is increasing year on year, with the automobile industry looking to discontinue production of internal combustion engined cars by 2030. That means the risk will increase annually as production of EVs is scaled up.

Capt Vande Velde explained that the challenge involved with li-ion batteries is that the heat generated by a faulty battery or cell can develop in just milliseconds to incredibly high temperatures of above 800 degrees celsius.

Usually, it is the separator that has failed between the positive and negative electrodes, with the chemicals in the electrolyte heating rapidly as the battery is effectively short-circuiting.

Heating of nearby combustible material will develop the fire quickly, and if that adjacent material is more EVs then the risk of thermal runaway, where batteries in other cars mirror the original chemical reaction, can be rapid reaching temperatures that can melt the structure of a vessel.

Once thermal runaway is reached, controlling a li-ion battery fire becomes almost impossible, often ending in total disaster as with last year’s accident on the Felicity Ace.

Experts, including Capt Vande Velde and his colleagues at CINS, believe new car batteries are safer, older or refurbished units may not be of the same quality and could pose a greater risk. Moreover, the state of charge can also play a role, with a high charge posing more risk.

As a result some car carrier operators have adopted measures to protect their, crew, vessels and environment. Henrik Meyer, senior quality manager, ports, terminals & stevedoring at Wallenius Wilhelmsen, told The Loadstar: “We regulate state of charge of all battery-EVs loading on our vessels. The desired SOC for us is 30%, which we base off regulations for the airline industry. We do not accept any used EV on our vessels due to the unpredictability of ther condition.”

“An industry best practice standard for alternatively fuelled vehicles and EVs is needed, especially with a deepsea focus. Institutions such as the International Maritime Organisation can play a big part in issuing these new regulations/best practices.”

A freight forwarder involved in the car-carrying sector noted that the IMO said last year firefighting equipment and measures on car-carrier vessels needed to be reassessed. He said: “At the same time some of the ro-ro carriers would prefer the state of charge to be lowered, but this would increase the risk of the batteries going flat while on the water, so this has not been approved but is seen as a recommendation.”

The ro-pax industry should be even more concerned, with passengers, including truck drivers, needing evacuating in the event of a thermal runaway event, made all the more likely by the fact that they will be carrying used EVs.

Though the EV and battery manufacturers seem unconcerned by the challenges outlined by CINS, Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders CEO Mike Hawes telling The Loadstar: “We are unaware of any evidence to suggest that transporting electric vehicles, which is standard practice globally, poses a greater risk to cargo or ferry vessels than other types of vehicle.”

According to Mr Hawes, regulations developed under the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe have set technical standards for the safety of EVs. In fact one major German automobile manufacturer recently told an inter-industry gathering: “Regulations cover it [the safe transportation of EVs], so you’re OK.”

Capt Vande Velde and his CINS partner, Peregrine Storrs-Fox of insurance mutual TT Club, were sufficiently taken aback by the comment to mention it to The Loadstar. Mr Storrs-Fox, a risk prevention director, had also attended meetings with battery suppliers, only to find safety not low on the agenda – but had been omitted from the programme altogether.

Concern among the International Group of P&I Club members and shipping industry figures is enough to establish a conference to debate the issues around the dangers of EVs and li-ion batteries in the supply chain, set for London next month.

CINS’ work on how to respond to li-ion battery fires will no doubt form part of the programme, which will also take the form of two break-out sessions, one for container carriers and the other for ro-ro ships, run in parallel.

One of the major discussions is certain to be how to fight li-ion battery fires and, according to the CINS report, water is the best extinguishant, due to its cooling capability; powder and foam may allow the chemical reaction to continue and allow reignition of the fire.

Prevention through correct packing of containers will also be discussed, and Capt Vande Velde said MSC was monitoring cargo spaces using sensors to check for any changes in the cargo. Importantly, the CINS report also stresses that all cargo containing li-ion batteries must be kept away from sources of heat.

These conditions can be more easily met on pure car and truck carriers or on container vessels, but the complexity increases substantially when the cargo is used EVs mixed with potentially hazardous freight on car decks.

And that a potential hazard ro-pax operators are only now waking up to, judging by the responses from some operators.

Of the four major ro-pax and one rail operators contacted by The Loadstar, only DFDS had apparently considered the subject: “We are working closely with our counterparts and subject experts to enable us to mitigate any potential risks,” it said. “Additionally, we have introduced a specific fire-fFighting package for fires in alternative-fuelled vehicles on all our vessels and have specific training on the subject.”

Much more work needs to be done before the unthinkable happens on board a ro-pax vessel, rather than waiting for a major incident. Helpfully, Capt Vande Velde and his team have listed the challenges involved in the development of regulations for the prevention of li-ion battery fires.

The main challenges outlined in the CINS report are:

  • proper classification of li-ion batteries, including the proper division in accordance with the power and energy storage capacity’
  • quality of lithium-ion batteries and compliance with the test summaries;
  • correct declaration and the responsibilities of shipper, forwarders, manufacturers and producers;
  • implementation of an effective supply chain ‘Know Your Customer’ programme;
  • compliance with relevant regulations including, but not limited to, the IMDG and CTU codes, and proper completion of the shipper’s declaration and packing declaration. This is mandatory for li-ion batteries classified as dangerous cargo, but could be initiated for li-ion batteries that are considered as being harmless, but nevertheless must be considered as ‘critical’ (critical cargo declaration and packing certificate). This can be considered by individual vessel operators;
  • container and cargo inspections and vanning surveys. This can be considered by individual vessel operators.

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