Felicity Ace

Allianz: Robust prevention measures are key to clamp down on battery fires in shipping

Transport of highly inflammable lithium-ion batteries, a key component of electric vehicles, which can also be used as backup power for ships, is increasingly impacting shipping safety as demonstrated by a number of fires on vessels such as Ro-Ro car carriers and containerships.

Illustration; Felicity Ace; Courtesy of Portuguese Navy

Given the many difficulties involved in suppressing battery fires, particularly at sea, focusing on loss prevention measures is crucial, whether batteries are transported within electric vehicles or as standalone cargo, according to a new risk bulletin from marine insurer Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty (AGCS).

“Shipping losses may have more than halved over the past decade but fires on board vessels remain among the biggest safety issues for the industry. The potential dangers that the transportation of lithium-ion batteries pose if they are not stored or handled correctly only add to these concerns, and we have already seen a number of incidents,” explains Captain Rahul Khanna, Global Head of Marine Risk Consulting at AGCS

“Companies should do all that they possibly can to implement, develop and follow robust loss prevention measures, given the growing popularity of electric vehicles means many more vehicles with lithium-ion batteries will be transported by sea in future.”

AGCS analysis shows that fire/explosion is the third top cause of shipping losses over the past decade and the most expensive cause of marine insurance claims over the past five years.

The risk bulletin highlights four main hazards:

  • fire (Li-ion batteries contain electrolyte, an ignitable liquid);
  • explosion (resulting from the release of ignitable vapor/gases in a confined space);
  • thermal runaway (a rapid self-heating fire that can cause an explosion);
  • and the toxic gases that these hazards can produce.

Allianz said that the most common causes of these hazards are substandard manufacturing of battery cells/devices; over-charging of the battery cells; over-temperature by short circuiting, and damaged battery cells or devices, which can result from poor packing and handling or cargo shift in rough seas if not adequately secured.

“Batteries are not only a potential cause of fire if damaged, overcharged or subjected to high temperatures, they can also aggravate other causes of fire at sea and are difficult to extinguish as they have the potential to reignite days or even weeks later,” says Khanna.

 “In most shipboard incidents a thermal runaway event can be a significant possibility unless immediate action is taken by the crew, such as suppressing a fire with copious amounts of water over a long period of time. However, this can be extremely challenging due to factors such as early detection being difficult, a shortage of crew members on board, and if the vessel’s firefighting capabilities are inadequate.

In view of the above, the insurer advises owners and managers to ensure staff and the crew receive adequate training and access to appropriate firefighting equipment. Companies should also look at improving early detection systems and developing hazard control and emergency plans.

Earlier this month, industry major Maersk ordered Viking Life-Saving Equipment’s HydroPen drill-and-spray solution for fighting container fires. The HydroPen systems will be delivered to its entire fleet of owned vessels.

The investment comes in the aftermath of Maersk Honam fire. To remind, Maersk Honam was hit by a major fire in March 2018 while en route in the Arabian Sea towards Suez, claiming the lives of five of 27 crew members on board.