Navigating the lithium ion challenge in maritime shipping

By Dr William Moore, senior vice president & global head of Loss Prevention at P&I Insurance Club, The American Club.

Shipowners are currently grappling with the challenges associated with the transportation of goods containing Lithium Ion (Li-ion) batteries, particularly new and used electric vehicles (EV).

The International Energy Agency reports that electric car sales exceeded 10 million in 2022, constituting 14% of all new car sales, up from 9% in 2021 and less than 5% in 2020. And according to S&P, by 2030 over one in four new passenger cars sold will be an electric vehicle.

This surge in electric vehicle adoption is just the tip of a lifecycle wave, which in time will also include transporting higher and higher volumes of used EVs batteries in various physical conditions with potentially uneven charges – a significant fire risk challenge for the shipping sector and for wider society.

Further along their lifecycle, while spent EV batteries can find new life in stationary storage and backup power applications, another looming challenge is their eventual recycling. Predictions indicate that automotive batteries will become the largest share of recycled batteries from 2035 onward, for instance – and this potentially hazardous material will also need to be shipped for processing.

A leading cause of loss

Recent reports highlight that while Li-ion battery fires are not common, their consequences can be severe, especially in maritime transport. Indeed, major insurers and the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) have identified Li-ion batteries as a significant cause of fires on vessels.

In late October this year, a fire started on the bridge of the oil tanker S-Trust (pic) while the vessel was docked at the Genesis Port Allen Terminal in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. When investigators examined the area around the communications table on the bridge where the video showed the orange flash, smoke, and fire, they found the remains of a lithium-ion battery charger and a nickel-metal hydride battery charger.

The Coast Guard and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives origin and cause report for the fire stated that ”the cause of this fire was determined to be an energetic event [explosion] involving a lithium ion battery located on the navigation [communication] desk”.

Thankfully, there were no injuries, and no pollution was reported. Nevertheless, the damage to the vessel was estimated at $3 million. While the recent fire on the S-Trust was a small-scale incident promptly detected and contained while the ship was docked, it highlights the significant concerns about the consequences of larger fires at sea. This incident serves as a stark reminder of the highly dangerous scenario that could unfold aboard vessels carrying larger  Li-ion batteries in their cargo, such as those found in EVs.

The maritime industry faces a unique set of challenges when it comes to handling fires, especially those caused by lithium-ion batteries. Unlike incidents in port, fires at sea can escalate rapidly, posing severe threats to both lives and vessels. In the case of lithium-ion batteries, the potential for explosive events and fires is a serious concern. Larger container ships, often transporting numerous  Li-ion batteries within EVs or other cargo, could face catastrophic consequences if a fire goes undetected for an extended period during a sea voyage.

An ongoing debate

Overall, the industry is actively addressing the challenges associated with the transportation of Li-ion batteries to ensure safety and prevent potential incidents. This is very much a live conversation that is evolving in line with the growing transportation needs around EVs and other Li-ion-powered goods. Industry stakeholders are collaborating to manage risks, and regulatory bodies are considering revising existing regulations and considering practical measures for fire prevention.

The Cargo Incident Notification System (CINS) and Network, along with other stakeholders, released guidelines in March 2023 for the safe transport of Li-ion batteries in containers.

Meanwhile, in a very practical sense, minimising the current impact of Li-ion fires onboard a vessel comes down to three key points: knowing the cargo that is on board, detecting a fire early, and suppressing it effectively.

Misdeclared cargo poses a significant challenge for shipowners transporting goods containing Li-ion batteries due to the inherent risks associated with these highly flammable and sensitive energy storage devices. When cargo is inaccurately declared, there is a heightened risk of inadequate stowage and improper handling practices, increasing the likelihood of accidents such as fires or explosions.

Holistic approach

 

Addressing these challenges necessitates a holistic approach. Many detection systems onboard vessels, particularly smoke detection, are ageing, emphasising the need for modernisation in both detection and fire suppression systems. Newer and larger vessels with the relatively small number of crew to intervene to prevent or mitigate the spread of fires require greater technological innovation and well equipped and trained crews.

Following detection, the firefighting conundrum then moves to the suppression of Li-ion fires. The sheer volume of water needed to control and extinguish a Li-ion fire can pose a threat to the ship itself, potentially leading to its loss of stability that can lead to foundering or sinking. Several tragic instances of ships being lost during firefighting efforts underscore the severity of the issue.

The maritime industry must continue to have an open dialogue, and invest in advanced firefighting training specific to Li-ion battery fires for seafarers. And as battery technology evolves, staying abreast of safety guidelines and emerging risks is also paramount.

Battery technology

Addressing the issue at the source point is a key aspect of a comprehensive solution. This involves advancements in battery technology to enhance safety features and mitigate the risks of thermal runaway.

It also requires industry-wide standards and regulations to ensure the safe transport and use of lithium-ion batteries. Collaboration between maritime organisations, manufacturers, and regulatory bodies is essential to develop and implement effective strategies for preventing and managing Li-ion fires at sea.

In the initial transportation of new products, the emphasis is on ensuring the safe and secure delivery of goods, with a focus on adherence to stringent safety regulations and proper stowage practices to prevent accidents and mitigate potential hazards. As these products reach the end of their lifecycle and are no longer in use, transporting used products becomes a critical phase, introducing the challenge of dealing with potentially more volatile and higher-risk batteries.

Proper disposal and recycling of Li-ion batteries at the end of their lives present another set of challenges, requiring specialised handling to minimise environmental impact and avoid hazards associated with improper disposal.

We are just at the start of this conversation. Navigating these uncharted waters successfully demands a holistic and lifecycle-oriented approach, wherein the maritime industry collaborates with regulators, manufacturers, and recycling entities to establish and adhere to comprehensive safety and environmental protocols at every stage of the Li-ion battery lifecycle.

This approach not only ensures the continued support for innovative technologies but also reinforces the industry’s commitment to sustainability and safety in the face of evolving challenges.

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