The Allianz insurance group recommends reinforcing security measures for all shipping operations involving lithium-ion batteries, given the increased risk of fire they represent.
The development of electric vehicles will result in the years to come in an increase in the number of vehicles containing lithium-ion batteries being transported by sea. When these batteries are not stored, handled or transported correctly, they represent an increased risk of fire. This risk has today become a matter of sufficient concern as to prompt the insurer, Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, to publish a report on the main risks posed by these batteries, along with recommandations about how to handle them.
Four kinds of risk
It is difficult to make a precise diagnosis. Fires aboard container and ro-ro vessels generally last several days and cause such damage that it is often difficult to find proof regarding their cause. The role of lithium-ion batteries in causing or aggravating such fires, however, is clearly one of the lines of enquiry increasingly favoured by investigators.
The report highlights four main kinds of risk :
- Fires - lithium-ion batteries contain inflammable liquids known as electrolytes
- Explosions - due to the release of inflammable vapours or gases in a confined space
- Thermal runaways - a rapid, self-heating fire that can cause an explosion
- Toxic gases - which can be produced when incidents occur
Fires caused by lithium-ion batteries are more intense, more difficult to extinguish and more likely to reignite hours or even days after they have been put out. Most ships today do not have adequate detection systems and firefighting equipment to deal with them. The increase in the size of ships has added to these difficulties.
Prevention the priority
Regulations and instructions on to how to avoid incidents already exist but they are not sufficiently known about or applied. To improve prevention, Allianz's maritime risk experts include in their report a series of recommendations regarding the transportations of lithium-ion batteries, installed in vehicles or otherwise, for the attention of producers, forwarders and transporters.
During storage, the experts recommend not exposing the batteries to high temperatures or heat sources, ensuring that they are kept separate from other combustible materials if no automatic extinguishing equipment has been installed, carrying out visual inspections at each stage of the handling process to ensure that packaging has not been damaged and installing shock and vibration detectors for large batteries.
Allianz insists, too, that personnel should be trained with regard to packaging and handling and seafarers given specific training regarding lithium-ion battery fire prevention procedures.
The report recommends that particular vigilance be exercised when electric vehicles are aboard ship. Electric vehicles with low ground clearance, for example, must be clearly labelled, since this can pose problems during loading and unloading. Clearly, these vehicles should also be correctly lashed down.
In general, transporting dangerous materials by sea is a risky business. It is necessary, therefore, to follow very strict rules and to adopt the right measures to reduce risks to a minimum.