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  June 22nd, 2023 | Written by

De-risking the Carriage of Lithium-ion Batteries

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At the heart of efforts to draw attention to the hazards inherent in transporting lithium-ion batteries, specialist freight insurer TT Club now urges debate leading to a balanced, yet realistic awareness of the dangers, and a united approach to enhancing their safe carriage. Improved regulatory clarity is required and auto manufacturers need to address transport safety issues more thoroughly.

Rapid development of battery technology and the uncertainties created by these developments, particularly concerning safety when the energy packs are being transported require the logistics industry to have a clear understanding of the dangers which can include fire, explosions and toxic gas emissions.  Moreover, there needs to be increased efforts to minimize the risks, and if necessary, make sure there is an effective response to any catastrophic event.

Alarmist reports in the media can overstate the number of incidents involving electric vehicles.  Indeed Peregrine Storrs-Fox, Risk Management Director at insurance mutual TT Club points out that “Lithium-ion (li-ion) battery fires are not an everyday occurrence.  But when thermal runaway does happen, the result is release of toxic gases such as carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide, a very high temperature fire and can spread very fast.”

The release of toxic fumes may be the first alert, but fire with temperatures higher than 1,000degs centigrade can be reached in a matter of seconds and, as the mix of chemicals and metals ignites, devastation can ensue.

In keeping with its mission to extend awareness and achieve a united front, TT Club was delighted to be part of a forum of interested parties which was held recently in London.  Much was revealed by the speakers and valuable debate ensued.  “Supply chain players including ship owners, carriers, forwarders, terminal and port operators and insurers are engaged with these debates. Indeed, the maritime regulator IMO (International Maritime Organization) has its guidance for carriage of these batteries under serious review,” says Storrs-Fox.  “But we need to bring manufacturers of EVs and the batteries that power them actively into the debate.  Their ambitions for the development of more powerful, lighter and diverse battery cells must not be allowed to outstrip prioritizing safety concerns surrounding their future transportation around the globe.”

Such concerns regarding the battery packs within electric vehicles (EVs) have been raised in the US and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has carried out a study.  The forum heard that EVs were reported to have incurred fewer fire incidents than internal combustion engine (ICE) cars. However, there are a few provisos to be highlighted here – not least that there are far fewer electric cars on the road than ICE vehicles.

Secondly it is understood that newer batteries are less likely to ignite or explode than used batteries, effectively the older the li-ion unit, the greater the chance of an incident. As a result, it is not clear how the batteries will perform through the intended life, given that the switch to EV’s is only now gathering pace and most battery packs are new.

Regarding the rapid spread of fire, Eva Mckiernan, the technical director at firefighting consultancy Jensen Hughes highlighted the dangers of thermal runaway as the most pressing issue after ignition.  She explained that these energy packs are thermo-dynamically unstable.  When the batteries are damaged, they can release hot and poisonous gases into containers or onto car decks of ro-ro ships and other vehicle carriers within seconds.  When the batteries explode those extraordinary temperatures can be reached.

Of course, EVs are just one use for li-ion batteries, which can be found in a variety of goods including e-bikes and scooters, as well as computers and mobile phones.  All of these goods are transported with batteries in containers. Whilst transported as new, it may be reasonable to expect appropriate packaging, although state of charge is variable, used and damaged batteries present considerable uncertainty for the transport supply chain.

About TT Club

TT Club is the established market-leading independent provider of mutual insurance and related risk management services to the international transport and logistics industry. TT Club’s primary objective is to help make the industry safer and more secure. Founded in 1968, the Club has more than 1100 Members, spanning container owners and operators, ports and terminals, and logistics companies, working across maritime, road, rail, and air. TT Club is renowned for its high-quality service, in-depth industry knowledge and enduring Member loyalty. It retains more than 97% of its Members with a third of its entire membership having chosen to insure with the Club for 20 years or more.