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Lithium Ion Battery Fires: A Threat to Container Shipping

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Matthew Bonvento & Captain John Cox

From 2015 to present an estimated 250 incidents related to electric hoverboard fires have been recorded according to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission. The same commission reports that 83,000 Toshiba laptop batteries were recalled in 2017 due to fire and safety concerns.

In January 2017 a NYC garbage truck was the source of a neighborhood surprise when a Lithium ion battery exploded in the compactor of the truck. Luckily no one was injured.

According to a study conducted by the National Fire Data Center branch of the U.S. Fire Administration, between January 2009 and 31 December 2016 a reported 195 incidents of E-Cigarette fires occurred in the U.S. 133 of these resulting in injuries.

What all these reports share, is that the underlying cause of each incident are lithium-ion batteries. Lithium Ion batteries have become an integral part of everyday life. Used in our computers, cell phones, cars, even e-cigarettes, there are very few electronic items that do not use these high-density batteries. The popularity is simple, better battery for a smaller size. According to the Australian Academy of Science, LI batteries are twice as strong as the traditional NiCad battery.

How do Lithium Ion batteries work?
According to the department of energy: "A battery is made up of an anode, cathode, separator, electrolyte, and two current collectors (positive and negative). The anode and cathode store the lithium. The electrolyte carries positively charged lithium ions from the anode to the cathode and vice versa through the separator. The movement of the lithium ions creates free electrons in the anode which creates a charge at the positive current collector. The electrical current then flows from the current collector through a device being powered (cell phone, computer, etc.) to the negative current collector. The separator blocks the flow of electrons inside the battery."

Why all the fires?
Lithium Ion batteries are subject to Thermal Runaway. This occurs when the separator blocking the flow of electrons in the battery fails.

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In a stunning fire on the 4th of January 2020 the COSCO Pacific suffered a container fire while underway from Nansha, China for Nhava Shevaby, India.. The fire, although extinguished and no injuries were reported, the vessel was delayed several days as the extent of the damage was investigated.

The MY Kanga, in the port Dubrovnik, Croatia was a total loss when the vessel experienced a catastrophic fire. This fire was caused by a thermal runaway of several LI-on batteries in recreational vessels housed in the yacht garage. As the fire intensity increased, the crew and passengers were forced to abandon the vessel.

Technology to the rescue
Until recently there were only two ways to address a lithium battery fire. A firefighter could allow the electronic device to burn until all fuel is exhausted, or douse the burning device with large amounts of water. Both of these "solutions" have serious drawbacks. The damage of a fire to surrounding areas can be significant making the first option unacceptable. Additionally, fire on a ship, airplane or other confined area can become catastrophic. Extinguishing the fire is essential.

Dousing the fire with great quantities of water can reduce the temperature of the batter below the ignition point (180C/350F), however, the firefighter is in close proximity to the burning battery and the excess water can cause unanticipated damage to equipment and furnishings.

Recent innovation provides a new, more effective option. The necessity to reduce the temperature of a battery in thermal runaway, absorb the vapor (smoke, which is toxic) quickly is now available. The technological breakthrough is accomplished by the use of recycled glass beads that are specially designed to absorb heat and vapor. Tests show that a burning laptop is extinguished in 15 seconds. The method of application protects the firefighter.

This new technology is due to the efforts of CellBlock to help several industries cope with lithium battery fires. The CellBlock scientists realized that lithium battery fires were going to occur in growing numbers. Diverse sectors of the economy would be affected including manufacturing, airlines, healthcare and others. CellBlock engineers looking at the transportation risks in the industry of lithium battery fires brought focus to the airlines (cargo and passenger), and now maritime.

Maritime's Risk
Our economy is global with goods are shipped worldwide, and within many of those shipments are lithium batteries. The organization providing the shipping is at risk during the time the lithium batteries are onboard. Having the ability to extinguish a battery entering thermal runaway quickly, before extensive damage occurs can be critical.

Two airlines have lost 747s to lithium battery fires. Each had over 50,000 batteries onboard and the source of ignition was traced to those containers. Ships carry millions of batteries. Having the ability to extinguish a lithium battery fire quickly could make the difference between an incident and a disaster.

Jul 20, 2020


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