Li-ion Batteries – A boon for sustainability, but a challenge to the industry?

The world is moving forward aggressively toward finding alternatives to fossil fuels, and electric vehicles (EVs) are shining as the most accessible and cost-effective ones as of yet. Globally, the adoption of EVs for both personal and commercial transport has seen a substantial rise since 2021. Global sales of electric cars have kept rising strongly in 2022, with 2 million sold in the first quarter, up 75% from the same period in 2021. In fact, a study presumes EVs to represent more than 30% of vehicles sold globally in 2030 across all modes (excluding 2/3 wheelers). Though still short when considering the 2050 Paris Agreement goals, the number is rapidly growing.

A critical component of EV manufacturing is the battery pack being used, and Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries have been the primary choice of manufacturers. Li-ion batteries provide numerous advantages over traditional lead-acid and nickel-metal hydride batteries, including better efficiency, higher energy density, longer lifespan, and reduced costs (induced by economies of scale).

The rise in the use of Li-ion batteries for EVs has stimulated growth in the electric vehicle industry and has attracted investments in battery manufacturing and charging infrastructure development. However, a fresh report from Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty (AGCS) marine risk consultants warns of the growing fire risk associated with Li-Ion batteries.

For some time now, there have been increased news reports about cargo ships, especially of the Ro-Ro kind, catching fires and suffering major damages. One of the recent prominent ones was the fire onboard Felicity Ace. On February 16th, the Roll-On-Roll-Off (RORO) car carrier vessel went up in blazes, while carrying ~4,000 luxury cars including Porsche, Lamborghini, Volkswagen, and Bentley, among other cargo. According to the ship’s captain, the lithium-ion batteries in the cars were what caused the fire, which needs special equipment to be extinguished.

While this was not the first or the last time such an accident was reported, it drew specific attention to the potential dangers of transporting Li-ion batteries and EVs on cargo ships. Li-ion batteries, and specifically those in EVs, have therefore become an area of particular concern to the maritime industry as the risk of fire or explosion is significant.

Li-ion batteries can store up to four times more energy per unit of mass than other batteries, and as a result, they also pose a significant threat of fire/explosion due to their potential for thermal runaway events i.e. when the battery enters an uncontrollable, self-heating state, resulting in the release of gas and shrapnel at extremely high temperatures. All types of li-ion battery configurations used in vehicles, including battery electric vehicles (BEV), hybrid electric vehicles (HEV), and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV), are susceptible to these incidents.

Detecting the cause of these thermal runaway events is still a challenge due to their extreme temperatures and prolonged burning duration. Consequently, little or no trace of evidence remains for examination. The shortage of manpower and inadequate firefighting capabilities onboard vessels further compounds the problem. Hence, the focus must primarily be on prevention rather than early detection.

The storage of Li-ion batteries also poses a dilemma for many companies because there is no unified legislation. To avoid and limit damage, safety measures can be taken depending on the individual case. Generally, the potential risk associated with Li-ion increases as the amount of energy stored by the batteries increases, and as the number stored increases.

Dr. Firoze Z. (Chief Security Officer, Delhivery) explains that refurbished and repaired Li-ion batteries that are sent back are the most hazardous and extremely prone to catching fires, even in normal transport. He also said that EV users sending batteries back to service/repair sectors should take care that during transportation, the battery charge must be less than 30% of the total charge.

“Most batteries of EVs do not have a meter for visibility of the charge. Transportation of EV batteries remains largest challenge for EV expansion across usage sectors. (we) need to widely share standards for transportation in airlines, ships, trucks, etc.. Ships and airlines need to do thermal screening to detect and prevent major fire hazards. Container full of batteries has to placed in separate zones.”

Dr. Firoze Z.

While talking to us, he also mentioned that the movement of Li-ion batteries around the world is increasing by the day (for all categories of vehicles) and is only bound to increase. Therefore, there needs to be a set of fire and safety regulations from the manufacturers’ end, which needs to then spread across those engaged in the repair and maintenance of Li-ion batteries.

Regarding fire protection, the report suggests a dearth of options for Li-ion batteries, and fire testing has been limited, mostly due to the continuously evolving battery chemistries and the very high cost of full-scale testing. It also says that contrary to majority belief, water is the best medium to cool and control Li-ion battery fires and has been proven to be the best agent to fight a fire involving Li-ion batteries. Other extinguishing agents can extinguish the fire, but unlike water, only temporarily. This means that the heat generated by the ongoing chemical reaction will rapidly spread back through the battery and can reignite the fire.

It also suggests that using fire-proof blankets is another preventative measure when it comes to transporting EVs.

AGCS emphasizes the need for proactive measures to prevent li-ion battery fires. There is a need for enhanced training and awareness of shipping lines’ and airlines’ staff to provide them with comprehensive information and training on Li-ion firefighting techniques to improve their capabilities in handling potential incidents. The report also suggests the installation of early detection systems, including watch-keeping and fire rounds, thermal scanners, gas detectors, heat and smoke detectors, and CCTV cameras, which can aid in timely response to developing fire situations.

While the transportation of Li-ion batteries does present certain challenges and risks, it is important to note that several positive developments and measures are also being taken to ensure the safe transportation of these batteries.

Taking a hint from Dr. Firoze’s perspective, there’s a need for unified legislation and standards for the transportation of Li-ion batteries across various modes. With this collaborative effort, guidelines that prioritize safety and minimize risks, are being developed. Apart from this, by sharing best practices and expertise, manufacturers, transporters, and service sectors can collectively work towards ensuring the safe handling and transportation of Li-ion batteries.

Moreover, with a lot of focus on skill development in the supply chain industry, it is evident that the coming generation of the industry’s workforce will be trained for handling dangerous goods, including batteries of various kinds. This includes equipping personnel with comprehensive information and firefighting techniques specific to Li-ion batteries, thereby, improving their capabilities in handling potential incidents. By investing in employee training and awareness programs, the industry is taking steps to mitigate risks and respond effectively to developing fire situations.

While the risks associated with Li-ion batteries cannot be ignored, the industry’s commitment to safety, ongoing advancements in technology, and collaborative efforts provide a positive outlook for the future of transporting these batteries. With a focus on prevention, unified regulations, and enhanced safety measures, the transportation of Li-ion batteries can be conducted safely and efficiently, supporting the growth of electric vehicles and sustainable transportation systems.

With the rapid advancement of technology and the absence of consistent regulations, the assessment of risks associated with li-ion battery usage is an ongoing development. The supply chain industry must prioritize understanding the hazards, causes, and challenges related to the transport of these batteries. Effective communication and enforcement of domestic and international regulations are critical to achieving a safer supply chain.

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