What are the real risks of Lithium Ion batteries?

Over recent times, we have seen more and more press coverage of incidents involving Lithium Ion (Li-ion) batteries. Whether this involves electric vehicles catching alight or e-scooters bursting into flames, there has been an increasing concern about the dangers of equipment containing these batteries.

Malcolm Pearson looks into the issue that has caused many in our industries to question the safety of such items in moving or storage consignments and the potential exposure for companies and insurers.

Separating fact from fiction is also becoming a challenge, with people quick to jump to conclusions that are not always accurate. A good example of this was the recent fire in a car park at a UK airport, with the initial reports via social media blaming an electric vehicle, something that was quickly corrected when the authorities advised the cause was a diesel vehicle.

These batteries are increasingly becoming part of our everyday lives, from mobile phones to laptops to electric cars, if we own them. Even if Lithium Ion batteries are not the cause of a fire, they are undoubtedly strong accelerants of one if present. Recent bans on e-scooters on various forms of public transport show the fears that have built about overall safety.

Why do LI-ion batteries pose a fire risk?

It’s important to note that many items use lithium-ion batteries safely and without issue. We see many electric and hybrid vehicles operating without any issues across the globe, so what are the main risks with items containing these batteries?

The main risks are as follows:

  • Improperly manufactured, poor-quality materials
  • Battery management software faults
  • Battery abuse
    • Mechanical damage dropped or in case of vehicles involved in collision or accident
    • Over-charging / over-discharging
    • Exposure to extreme temperatures / high local temperature
  • Short circuit – external and internal short circuits
  • End of life

What are the risks for the moving, storage and shipping industries?

There are concerns around vehicles and vessels transporting these items and the risk of combustion in transit, as well as warehouses holding items in store being at risk or simply the accelerant factor batteries might provide should another cause start a fire.

In a fire involving these batteries, it has been recorded that a process called Thermal Runway can occur, which can rapidly increase the heat of the fire from anywhere between 400 degrees Celsius and, in some cases, upwards of 2000 degrees Celsius. Allied with the fact that the temperature rise can happen in milliseconds, resulting in fires that are almost impossible to control, this could explain incidents where fires have been considered extinguished after many hours of fighting them, only for re-ignition to happen later.

Recent vessel fires, such as the Fremantle Highway in The Netherlands in July of this year involving EV and Hybrid vehicles, showed the ferocity these fires can take.

What measures can be taken?

Shipping lines have been taking various steps, and we are already seeing demands that any LI-ion batteries in consignments be separated out and declared as hazardous cargo. We have already seen fines for companies not doing so. There is also a strong opinion that lithium-ion batteries need to be reclassified under the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code to clarify how they must be handled.

The first area that the household moving and storage industries have already considered is whether there is a need to refine the contractual relationship between company and client to place an element of responsibility with the consumer.

The self-storage industry has already adjusted its terms around Li-ion batteries. Moving companies will look closely at this in the coming year with a view to a similar approach. This will be a valuable and wise move. However, it only partially removes the risk, and there will need to be considered risk management from moving and storage companies about the level of interaction they take with such items.

Whilst a blanket ban would remove risk, is this realistic with these batteries in so many items now? While not shipping electric vehicles would be a clear strategic decision for some, there will be many more items in a household shipment potentially containing lithium-ion batteries considered safe or potentially dangerous, depending on size and origin. It is undoubtedly a challenge that needs monitoring and consideration as their use becomes ever more commonplace, and we will see more changes in approach and regulation develop in the near future.

Want to Know More?

If you would like to know more about any of the issues raised in this article, or have a concern about how they may effect your cover, our team will be happy to help. Get in touch to learn more.