Fire and explosion risks due to Lithium-ion batteries are increasing and are impacting supply chains

Published: Thursday, 01 September 2022 08:34

Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are increasingly impacting shipping and supply chain safety as demonstrated by a number of fires on vessels such as roll-on roll-off (ro-ro) car carriers and container ships.

Given the many difficulties involving in suppressing such incidents, particularly at sea, focusing on loss prevention measures is crucial, whether batteries are transported within electric vehicles (EVs) or as standalone cargo, according to a new report from marine insurer Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty (AGCS).

The report ‘Lithium-ion batteries: Fire risks and loss prevention measures in shipping’ highlights four main hazards: fire (Li-ion batteries contain electrolyte, an ignitable liquid); explosion (resulting from the release of ignitable vapor/gases in a confined space); thermal runaway (a rapid self-heating fire that can cause an explosion); and the toxic gases that these hazards can produce. The most common causes of these hazards are substandard manufacturing of battery cells/devices; over-charging of the battery cells; over-temperature by short circuiting, and damaged battery cells or devices, which, among other causes, can result from poor packing and handling or cargo shift in rough seas if not adequately secured.

The primary focus must be on loss prevention and in the report AGCS experts highlight a number of recommendations for companies to consider, focusing on two areas in particular: storage and in transit.

Among others, recommendations to mitigate the fire risk that can potentially result from Li-ion batteries during the transportation of EVs on car carriers and within freight containers include ensuring staff are trained to follow correct packing and handling procedures and that seafarers have had Li-ion battery firefighting training; checking the battery’s state of charge (SOC) is at the optimal level for transportation where possible; ensuring that EVs with low ground clearance are labelled as this can present loading/discharging challenges; and checking all EVs are properly secured to prevent any shifting during transportation.

In transit, anything that can aid early detection is critical, including watchkeeping/fire rounds and utilizing thermal scanners, gas detectors, heat/smoke detectors, and CCTV cameras.

The report also highlights a number of measures that can help ensure safe storage of Li-ion batteries in warehouses, noting that large-format batteries, such as those used in EVs, ignite more quickly in a warehouse fire than smaller batteries used in smartphones and laptops. Among others, recommendations include training staff in appropriate packing and handling procedures; establishing an emergency response plan to tackle damaged/overheating batteries and a hazard control plan to manage receiving, storage, dispatch and supervision of packaged Li-ion batteries; preventing the exposure of batteries to high temperatures and ensuring separation from other combustible materials; as well as prompt removal of damaged or defective Li-ion batteries.

Read the report (PDF).