Q&A: Fire on board the Fremantle Highway ship

Q&A: Fire on board the Fremantle Highway ship

DW — 2023-07-30

Maritime and Ports

What caused the fire?

The Fremantle Highway caught fire off the Dutch island of Ameland on July 26, 2023. The car carrier had set out from Bremerhaven, Germany, to sail to Singapore. The cause of the fire has not been definitively established, but it is possible that the battery in one of the electric cars on board ignited.

This can happen, for example as a consequence of a production error. On the evening of July 28, 2023, the Dutch authorities reported that the fire had died down and was emitting less smoke. However, it is still burning, and it is not clear for how long the freighter can withstand the heat.

According to the German environment ministry, the ship is carrying 1,600 tons of heavy fuel oil and another 200 tons of marine diesel oil. There is still the danger of an environmental disaster.

Does the transport of electric vehicles endanger shipping?

It is difficult to make a general statement about this. The Allianz insurance company records that 209 ship fires were reported last year. That is the highest number in a decade, up 17% on 2021. Thirteen of those fires occurred on car carriers — but it is not clear how many of them involved electric vehicles.

What is clear is that electric vehicles are powered by lithium-ion batteries, similar to those used in laptops. If a battery of this type is faulty — for example, if it short-circuits — it can spontaneously combust.

It is evident from the precautionary measures taken on commercial flights that this can be a serious problem. Passengers on planes are not allowed to check in laptops in their suitcases, but must take their computers with them into the cabin as hand luggage. If a device gets hot or starts smoking, passengers are told to notify the crew immediately, something that is now explicitly mentioned before every takeoff.

There are strict regulations for air freight, too. Only certain types of batteries may be transported on cargo-only aircraft, and then only under strict conditions with regard to packaging, for example.

Why is this fire so hard to put out?

The Fremantle Highway car carrier had around 3,800 new cars on board, including 500 electric vehicles. The lithium-ion batteries installed in these vehicles are extremely difficult to extinguish once they start to burn. The fire cannot be extinguished with water or by oxygen deprivation, as this carries a risk of explosion. Not only that, thermal processes can also cause fires spontaneously to reignite. Burning batteries must be extinguished with special substances that are often not to hand on ships like the Fremantle Highway.

What makes a fire on a freighter so challenging?

Insurance experts say the fire on the Fremantle Highway has brought attention to a problem that has existed for some time: inadequate fire protection on ships. More and more equipment with lithium-ion batteries is being transported worldwide — yet extinguishing systems on freighters are often outdated, and have not kept pace with the new fire protection challenges.

Another difficulty is that car carriers like the Fremantle Highway are essentially giant floating car parks. Cars are packed in close together, and the ceilings separating them are low. This makes it hard for firefighters to get at the source of the fire. In the event of an accident, it is easier to extinguish fires in electric vehicles if they are being transported on trucks or by rail.

Is this fire already having consequences?

A spokesperson for the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has said that, in light of the growing number of fires on cargo ships, it plans to bring in new safety standards for those transporting electric vehicles next year. The IMO, which is based in London, sets the regulations for safety at sea. The guidelines could include specifications on how fully a battery can be charged. New chemicals for extinguishing fires, special fire blankets, battery-penetrating jet extinguishers, and bigger gaps between electric vehicles could also become mandatory.