The fire aboard the Panama-registered Fremantle Highway which was reported as transporting 2,857 cars, of which 498 are said to be electric, from Bremerhaven, Germany, appears to be under control, and the vessel is now anchored 10 miles off the Dutch coast.

It was reported that the fire was caused by an electric vehicle self-igniting, but in its regular updates the Dutch Coastguard carefully avoids such speculation, merely noting that its origin remains unknown.

Fire risk prompts ban

Many media outlets have continued to suggest that a battery-powered car was the culprit which may or may not turn out to be the truth, however the fire does come after a Norwegian ferry company banned the carriage of all electric and hybrid vehicles on its vessels.

Havila Krystruten operates 11 ships, four of which carry passengers, freight and vehicles on the main coastal route from Bergen in the south, to Kerkenes in the far north of the country.

Early this year the company announced that it will only carry private vehicles with internal combustion engines (ICE) after an investigation into a fire on another vessel, the Felicity Anne, which was carrying electric vehicles across the Atlantic.

Although the exact cause was not determined, and it was not one of their ships, Havila Krystruten’s CEO, Bent Martini, said that “a possible fire in electric, hybrid or hydrogen cars will require external rescue efforts and could put people on board and the ships at risk”.

Fire hazards of Li-ion batteries

These three incidents further highlight the issue of electric vehicle fires which is gaining recognition as a problem which will need addressing if EVs become accepted as an alternative to ICE-powered vehicles .

The fundamental problem is that li-ion battery fire is completely different to a normal fire in which materials oxidise to produce heat, flames and smoke.

A li-ion fire is more correctly referred to as a thermal runaway as it is a result of a battery, or one of its cells, overheating and that heat not being able to dissipate at the same rate as it is produced. Once one cell overheats it becomes a chain reaction and the whole battery ignites.

There are various causes for this initial overheating including short circuits within the cells due to manufacturing faults.

The lower the manufacturing quality the greater the risk of thermal runaway, which is likely to be the reason for the large number of fires in China seen on social media channels.

It is not the only cause however; damage to the battery, excessive charge or discharge rates and operation in hot environments can all be responsible for thermal runaway.

Normal procedures don’t work

What is important to note is that these fires are chemical reactions which do not require or involve oxygen, so simply smothering them with foam or water will have no effect whatsoever.

Hosing them down is only useful to the extent that the water will help carry away the heat, it doesn’t actually put the fire out, and pumping water into a ship is never a good idea anyway.

The challenge of battery safety is not confined to cars, any vehicle or machine relying on li-ion batteries as a power source is at risk, including the increasing number of tractors, loaders and robots which are being offered in electric form.

The fire on board the Freemantle Highway has once again focussed attention on the dangers of battery fires, dangers that exist just as much on land and will increase as batteries age and are subject to the rough working environment of farms.

Li-ion power could increase costs

Doubtless the insurance companies will be looking very closely at this incident and should the use of li-ion batteries be seen as increasing the extent of fire damage, whether on board ships or in a barn, then inflated premiums will follow as night follows day.

Any extra cost of shipping insurance will be passed on to the customer, making EVs more expensive to transport, if any company is willing to carry them at all, and, as we have seen, there is one which has already refused to accept that risk.

Although referred to as car carriers these vessels will also carry trucks, construction equipment and farm tractors, all of which may have li-ion batteries. Ordering an electric tractor may be easy enough, but getting it shipped to Ireland could well prove problematic.