Seafarers desperately need training to handle explosive lithium-ion batteries

Seafarers desperately need training to handle explosive lithium-ion batteries — 2023-01-10

Maritime and Ports

Simon Hodgkinson, head of loss prevention at West P&I, believes dedicated courses are a must to safeguard mariners’ lives.

Transporting potentially explosive lithium-ion batteries on vessels is a dangerous business, as incidents in recent years have shown. An investigation by the United States Coast Guard into a freight container that caught fire on a US highway in 2021 attributed the blaze to a batch of lithium-ion batteries. The cargo ignited while enroute to the Port of Virginia, where it was to be shipped to China aboard a container vessel.

The dangers of carrying lithium-ion batteries on ships has been highlighted in an Allianz Global Corporate & Speciality report, which ranks fire and explosion as the number one cause of marine insurance losses by value from 2017 to 2021. The research, issued in November 2022, also reveals the growing threat of fires caused by lithium-ion batteries that are not stored, handled or transported correctly.

"Crews do not have a standard approach for quelling a blaze originating from a lithium-ion battery."

In damaged lithium-ion batteries, individual cells are prone to overheating, expelling flammable and toxic gases, and affecting surrounding cells as part of an explosive chain reaction called thermal runaway. While such perils have been widely reported, there is little talk in the maritime industry about the inconsistent training methods for dealing with fires caused by lithium-ion batteries onboard vessels.

The biggest concern is that firefighting crews do not have a standard approach for quelling a blaze originating from a lithium-ion battery. Some firefighters recommend throwing a blanket over the fire, while others suggest plunging a burning electric vehicle into a huge tank of water.

The lack of consensus on how such fires should be dealt with means that few, if any, STCW-International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers firefighting training programmes cover lithium-ion batteries. That creates a gap in expertise, making it incredibly difficult to know what type of training seafarers should receive.

It also puts the lives of crewmembers – many of whom have limited knowledge about thermal runaway and the warning signs before an electric vehicle battery explodes or ignites – at risk. Without training, seafarers cannot be expected to attempt to prevent damaged lithium-ion cells from creating a thermal runaway chain reaction, which could spark an electric vehicle fire so powerful that it would need 150,000 litres of water to extinguish.

In the near-term, modules that address the dangers of lithium-ion batteries should be added to existing STCW firefighting courses. We then need specific training programmes set up globally and run by experts who can teach seafarers how to deal with this potentially life-threatening hazard.

Establishing what type of training mariners need is the first challenge. The next is ensuring vessels have the right equipment on board to handle a lithium-ion battery fire in line with what they have been taught. For example, crew members may learn that the best approach for dealing with a burning electric vehicle is to submerge it in a tank of water. But what is the point in teaching them this if the ship lacks the right kit or machinery for doing that safely?

Another issue is that electric vehicles are loaded onto carriers in the same way as cars with combustion engines. Petrol or diesel cars that ignite are relatively easy to deal with as each tank has a small amount of fuel that will quickly burn out. With electric vehicles, each lithium-ion battery needs about 50% charge to ensure it does not go flat while being shipped.

Loading electric vehicles with lithium-ion batteries, each carrying a substantial amount of energy, in the same way as standard cars is recipe for a potential catastrophe. If one battery ignites, it can cause a chain reaction, sparking a huge blaze that mariners will struggle to contain. As part of any training courses, specialists need to think about how electric vehicles are loaded onto car carriers and whether crew members have enough room around burning vehicles to contain the blaze.

A definitive solution for dealing with lithium-ion batteries that overheat, catch fire or explode will likely come from chemistry experts or firefighters. Until that happens, our advice to shipowners and operators is to invest in the latest fire-protection systems such as infrared cameras and heat sensors that can detect issues before a thermal runaway occurs. By installing modern detection systems, maritime companies can safeguard the lives of seafarers who lack the knowledge or training to handle blazes caused by highly volatile lithium-ion batteries.