Authored by Mike Schwarz, IIMS Chief Executive Officer
“Mike’s suffering from mild hysteria”, they said. Well, perhaps I have been, yes. The cause of my hysteria? Lithium-ion batteries and fires caused by them! There are believed to have been nearly 70 fires last year alone involving large and superyachts. As more new information on this subject comes to light on a regular basis, I simply have to come back to it time and time again and share what we know. It is a massive and worrying subject and one that is consuming the finest technical minds in the marine world right now. We all need to be aware of the phenomenon for it will not resolve any time soon. As always, I say I understand fully the need to decarbonize and embrace this technology and am not against progress. But it comes at a price and one we need to be prepared to pay.
I recently attended an event hosted by Shoosmiths, a firm of maritime lawyers, based near Southampton. The event took the form of a panel discussion involving five experts from different parts of the marine industry and was entitled “Are lithium-ion batteries safe on yachts?” It drew a sizeable audience of about 120 delegates to the event in person, way beyond their expectations and included marine surveyors, yacht management companies, regulators, underwriters, boat brokers and boat builders. As the event unfolded, I would describe the mood of the audience as engaged but concerned. In some cases, many seemed unaware of the immense threat posed by lithium-ion battery fires and all in the room were anxious for guidance. Guidance, however, was in short supply. One marina manager when asked what their policy is for berth holders to mitigate a lithium-ion battery fire disaster in one of their facilities said it is still too early for them and they are “only in the embryonic stages of developing a policy”. That frankly sums it up!
There seemed to be a consensus that lithium-ion batteries if installed in a new build boat or ship and meeting all the latest requirements on keeping them in sealed metal containers, are no more inherently dangerous than conventional fossil fuelled vessels. Indeed, the evidence would seem to support that; and insurers confirmed they have no issues insuring an electric boat powered by lithium-ion battery propulsion. The picture is less clear to batteries that are retrofitted into older vessels. But the panel discussion focused heavily, perhaps surprisingly, on the other less thought about aspects such as the charging of devices powered by lithium-ion batteries onboard, particularly overnight, including mobile phones, laptops, tablets and superyacht toys, for this is where the major issues lie. Leaving them to charge unattended overnight is potentially dangerous as overcharging can cause thermal runaway resulting in a catastrophic fire. This applies equally to an onboard setting as it does to a land-based home one. There have sadly already been examples. I will never do this again; nor should you, and I would encourage you to pass on this information. Please tell anyone you meet not to do it either.
One of the panel also spoke passionately about the importance of using the right charger for each device and not some cheaper imitation replacement from an unknown supplier, which presents a further unnecessary risk. The advice is use the correct charging mechanism always and read the instructions.
There was an acceptance and understanding that firefighting systems are not yet developed sufficiently to extinguish a lithium-ion battery fire in most cases. Simply chucking the burning object overboard, whilst a highly dangerous thing to do and not recommended, will bring some peace of mind, but won’t put out the fire! Early warning detectors of an imminent thermal runaway event are under development and will be available soon. But then we learned about the lethal mass of unignited toxic gases which hang around at low levels that could easily go undetected and ignite, or simply kill.
Representatives from the insurance and underwriting industries admitted they are still grappling with this whole area. From their comments, it seems likely that new clauses are certain to be written into consumer insurance policies to cover the use of lithium-ion-powered devices on their vessel.
The discussion turned specifically to superyacht toys and other accessories, many of which are powered by lithium-ion batteries and have been the cause of several fires last year. That might include, for example, the jet ski, the tender, the electric scooter or eBike. The list is long.
Whilst regulators are also grappling with this dilemma and trying to decide what regulations to implement, this is fine in the longer term for commercial vessels or boats that are subject to regulation. But what about the millions of pleasure boats worldwide that are unregulated? How do we as an industry get this message to them? I have no simple answer.
For now, it seems educating people to the dangers and encouraging them to use common sense and risk assess is the best way to make progress. But these things take time.
An employee from a large well known boat builder asked what advice they should pass on to their customers without alarming them. The reply was scant.
I mentioned earlier in this article that other developments have recently come to light about lithium-ion batteries. Let me tell you something about two of them.
Early detection key to preventing electric vehicles fires
Following several high-profile ship fires involving electric vehicles (EVs), Survitec has produced some valuable advice for operators of vessels transporting hybrid and EVs, such as ferries, ropaxes, RoRos, PCCs and PCTCs, on how best to prevent and control fire onboard ships involving lithium-ion battery-powered vehicles.
According to Survitec there are a number of ongoing initiatives within the industry to improve safety in this area. There is a desire to develop early fire detection systems to better monitor and protect car decks and lithium-ion batteries installed in vehicles onboard.
Any slight deviation in their properties can provide an early indication that conditions are right for a fire and afford time to take preventative measures to protect or quarantine hybrids and EVs. Pre-ignition signs of a battery fire include heat and smoke from parts of the vehicle where the battery is usually placed, popping sounds from battery cells, and toxic gas emissions.
While early detection solutions are available, Rafal Kolodziejski, Survitec’s Head of Product Support & Development Fire Systems, revealed that these systems are not yet adapted to allow for pre-fire conditions specific to lithium-ion batteries.
In my simplistic way as always, I ask why not?
The advice from the US Coast Guard is to avoid loading electric vehicles with saltwater damage on ships
The US Coast Guard (USCG) has issued a warning to the shipping industry about the extreme risk of loading electric vehicles (EV) with damaged lithium-ion batteries onto commercial vessels.
Marine Safety Alert 01-23 addresses the issue, and provides recommendations to vessels, ports, shippers and regulators. The safety alert comes just a few months after Hurricane Ian made landfall in South Florida. In the aftermath of the intense and destructive storm, first responders encountered numerous EV fires. Subsequent investigations and research have determined these were caused by exposure of the lithium-ion batteries to saltwater.
Exposure to saltwater can severely harm lithium-ion batteries, leading to a chemical reaction that creates a high fire risk. Records show there are over 7,000 EVs in Lee County, Florida alone with the potential for damage.
Wow, if you thought it could not get worse, it just did.
At the moment it feels to me like the marine industry is way behind the curve on this one, stumbling along towards a distant black hole, learning as we go and making up the rules to suit as best we can as new information emerges.
So, will it take a major incident involving the multiple loss of life before the regulators finally come up with something definitive, just as SOLAS was born out of the Titanic disaster over a century ago? Please, let’s hope and ensure not!