Electric vehicles and maritime transport
(Note: This article was originally written and submitted to gCaptain prior to the Felicity Ace fire, the cause of which is not yet known. It has been updated to include commentary on this event and the emergence of the Grimaldi/Euroferry fire off Corfu in the Mediterranean. .)
A fire on board a ship can be catastrophic. Many types of fires have standard firefighting procedures, but innovative onboard facilities or different cargoes introduce new risks. One of these emerging risks relates in particular to the transport of electric vehicles (EVs) on board ro-ro ships.
As early as 2013, the German Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Planning commissioned a study to determine whether transporting electric vehicles on ro-pax or ro-ro ships increased the risk of fire on board. The conclusion was that the transport of electrically powered vehicles (BEV and HEV) leads to an increased risk of fire. The study also covered fire protection and firefighting procedures, including a discussion of additional firefighting measures on board ro-pax and ro-ro vessels.
“In the event of a lithium-ion battery fire, it is important to note that such a fire reaches very high temperatures, produces toxic gases and is inextinguishable.”
Recommendations from the German BMVBS included:
- BEV/HEV and FC vehicles must be transported in special areas (equipped with appropriate detectors, fire extinguishing equipment and extinguishing agents). In the event of fire, possible separation of these vehicles by means of a wall of water or movable partitions (roller shutters).
- The awareness of fire-fighting teams should be increased with regard to the dangers associated with BEV/HEV and FC vehicles and their training should be extended accordingly.
In 2016, DNV-GL published a report on fires on ro-ro cargo bridges. It was not focused on electric vehicles and addressed all factors relating to ro-ro cargo fires in eighteen incidents. Recommendations included:
- Rapid activation of the fixed fire suppression system is important, particularly for open ro-ro bridges where the window of opportunity may be less than 10-15 minutes.
- Moving cargo is a risk. At least for ro-ro cargo and vehicle carriers, consideration should be given to improving cargo securing and weather-dependent routing.
- A policy on how to deal with alternative fuel vehicles should be developed where appropriate (know how on correct firefighting strategy/challenges), although this is not identified as a major risk (c is an unknown risk).
DNV-GL’s identification of “cargo change represents a risk” is particularly relevant for the transport of electric vehicles. The diagram below from the Journal of The Electrochemical Society examines four conditions that can lead to lithium-ion battery (LIB) thermal runaway, one of which is mechanical abuse. In other words, simply having lashings fail in a seaway with moving EV cargo could lead to thermal runaway and an ensuing fire.
As electric vehicles become more common, they are increasingly transported by sea. Although not specifically implicated in a number of recent Ro-Ro vessel fires, battery hazards in general were identified by the US Coast Guard in Marine Safety Alert 06-20 Recognize fire hazards and proper cargo stowage on RO-RO vessels and various protection and compensation organisations, including the Britannia and UK P&I clubs.
The source of the USCG MSA and P&I Club articles are primarily reports of fire accidents that have occurred. Like the 2016 DNV-GL report, recent accident reports are used to better understand how similar incidents could be avoided. Unfortunately, access to these reports is not guaranteed as it is at the discretion of the investigating flag state. As shown in the main image above, the crash report for Ace of sincerity was submitted to the IMO a year ago, but is not yet publicly available by the flag state of Panama. It has been speculated that this ro-ro cargo fire – along with five fatalities – could be linked to an electric vehicle.
Further information on how the EV and LIB fires could be fought can be found by exiting the marine industry. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has produced an Electric Vehicle Emergency Field Guide that discusses electric vehicle emergency response for first responders ashore. Unfortunately, many procedures and recommendations may not be applicable at sea due to stowage and space.
There is continued interest in VE and LIB fires in transport. The U.S. Transportation Research Board funded a study for 2022 noting that “fire hazards from lithium-ion batteries are currently undermanaged in mass transit operations.” More immediately, the Ship Operations Cooperative Program (SOCP) hosted a presentation by Captain Jim Staples of Ocean River LLC, “Understanding the Risk When Carrying Electric Vehicles on a Ship,” on February 17.
Captain Jim Staples presents at the SOCP
Some of the takeaways from Captain Staples’ presentation include:
- General construction of lithium-ion batteries
- Construction risks – whether exclusively electric or hybrid vehicles
- Overview of recent Ro-Ro fires and the challenges of electric vehicle firefighting
- Quick reference identified for electric vehicle fire emergency response by manufacturers and NFPA
- Current best practices, including thermal cameras for early identification of thermal runaway and appropriate PPE for onboard first responders
Captain Staples also requested the release of the accident report of Ace of sincerity, believing that the incident may have been linked to an electric vehicle fire. Meanwhile, Felicity As continues to burn in the Atlantic Ocean southwest of the Azores. The Portuguese Navy is ready after rescuing the crew of Felicity As and rescuers would be on their way. If the rescuers are able to contain the fire and bring the ship back to port, we can hope that the lessons learned will be made public.
Another ongoing ro-ro fire involves a Grimaldi/Euroferry vessel operating between the Greek port of Igoumenitsa and Brindisi in eastern Italy. Catching fire at 9:30 p.m. (EST) on February 17, one crew member was sent ashore with injuries, two people are reported trapped on the car deck, all other passengers and crew are reported in security. Initial word is that the fire started on the loading decks and the video below shows extensive damage to trucks stowed on the upper decks.
Grimaldi is no stranger to fires aboard Ro-Ros with Greater Europe a fire on board in the Mediterranean in 2019 and Great America burn and then sink in the Bay of Biscay in 2020. After these two events, Grimaldi said: “… in reference to rolling freight, the Grimaldi Group is asking for more checks on car batteries, which often cause short circuits on board ships, as well as in port terminals.
Let’s be safe there!
Further reading and links
USCG MSA 06-20 RECOGNITION OF FIRE HAZARDS AND PROPER STORING OF CARGO ON RO-RO SHIPS
NTSB – Hoegh Xiamen – Fire-CTL – June 2020
P&I UK – Car transporter fires and risks associated with transporting electric vehicles (2021)
Britannia – Loss-Prevention-Insight – Electric Vehicle Fires (2021)
Maritime Safety Innovation Lab – Electric Vehicle Cargo – Fire Risks