Latest blaze ignites maritime battery safety debate

A major fire on a vessel carrying millions of pounds worth of vehicles has only increased calls for the maritime sector to tackle the growing issue of onboard fire risks from the transportation of lithium-ion batteries.

The fire on the Freemantle Highway off the Dutch coast is expected to expose vehicle manufacturer Mercedes-Benz to at least $13 million (£10 million) in economic loss according to analysis by Russell, a data and analytics company.

Mercedes had previously announced it had 350 vehicles on board the vessel, which caught fire after leaving Bremerhaven enroute to Port Said, Egypt. The ship is carrying 2,857 vehicles on board, with 25 being electric vehicles.

The are reports the fire began close to the electric vehicles.

Suki Basi, Russell Group MD, Suki Basi explained:  “If the cause of the fire turns out to have been started by an electric vehicle, this will be a similar scenario to the Felicity Ace incident. The incident again raises questions surrounding the perils of shipping electric vehicles (EVs), and the flammable nature of EVs that contain lithium-ion batteries.

“The main perils of these batteries are fire and explosion that can cause conflagrations that burn for days and are difficult to extinguish.”

He added: “While the risks are known in the insurance industry, there will have to be a wider discussion about pre-emptive measures to prevent this sort of event re-occurring, such as having dedicated ro-ro vessels for EV’s.”

Ten insurance industry’s concerns have been highlighted by Captain Rahul Khanna, global head of Marine Risk Consulting at Allianz Commercial.

Citing the case of the  Freemantle Highway he added: “Every year Allianz Commercial analyses reported shipping losses and incidents involving ships over 100 gross tons in our annual report. And although shipping losses have declined by 65% over the past decade (38 vessels in 2022 compared with over 100 in 2013), unfortunately fire incidents have not followed. We continue to see major events involving large container ships, car carriers and ro-ro vessels for example. There were over 200 reported fire incidents during 2022 alone (209) – the highest total for a decade. Meanwhile, 64 ships have been lost to fires in the past five years. AGCS analysis of 250,000 marine insurance industry claims shows fire is also the most expensive cause of loss, accounting for 18% of the value of all claims analysed.”

Khanna continued: “Catastrophic fires on large vessels typically begin with combustible cargo, which then spreads rapidly and outpaces the firefighting capabilities of the crew. The size and design of large vessels makes fire detection and fighting more challenging and once crew are forced to abandon ship, emergency response and salvage operations become more complex and expensive, and the risk of a major or total loss increases. Fires need to be contained quickly, yet it may take several hours to get to the base of a fire on a large vessel.”

He highlighted that misdeclaration of cargo is a real problem.

“Industry reporting systems attribute around 25% of all serious incidents onboard container ships to mis-declared dangerous goods, such as chemicals, batteries, and charcoal, although many believe this number to be higher,” Khanna explained. “Failure to properly declare, document and pack hazardous cargo can contribute to blazes or hamper firefighting efforts. Labelling a cargo as dangerous is more expensive. Therefore, some companies try to circumvent this by labelling fireworks as toys or lithium-ion batteries (Li-Ion) as computer parts, for example.

He said the concerns around such batteries were increasing.

“Li-Ion batteries can be carried on board ships either as a cargo themselves or as part of the equipment for the electric vehicles (EVs) they provide power for,” added Khanna. “Many of these batteries are safely transported every day but fire risks are present in both scenarios, especially if the batteries are used or defective, damaged or improperly stored, packaged, handled or labelled. The main hazards are fire, explosion, and ‘thermal runaway’, a rapid self-heating fire that can cause an explosion. They can also produce irritating, corrosive or poisonous gases that cause an explosion in a confined space. The main causes of Li-Ion fires are substandard manufacturing or damaged battery cells or devices, over-charging, and short circuiting.

“Of course, Li-Ion batteries are an important source of energy and do not necessarily burn more frequently than other goods. It is only when they ignite that they are more difficult to extinguish as they can burn more ferociously and are capable of spontaneously reigniting hours or even days after they have been put out.

“Most ships lack the suitable fire protection, firefighting capabilities, and detection systems to tackle such fires at sea, which has been made more difficult by the dramatic increase in ship size – container-carrying capacity has doubled in the last 20 years. We have seen many fires where malfunctioning or damaged batteries have been attributed as a contributing factor in recent years.”

“If the cause of the fire turns out to have been started by an electric vehicle, this will be a similar scenario to the Felicity Ace incident. The incident again raises questions surrounding the perils of shipping electric vehicles (EVs), and the flammable nature of EVs that contain lithium-ion batteries.”

Suki Basi, Russell Group

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