It was the end of a long day on charter on M/Y Ablaze. The guests had spent all afternoon playing hard on the water toys and the deckhands were putting everything away. Before they headed up to haul in the slide, they put the electric toys on charge in the lazarette. About 15 minutes later, the blare of a smoke alarm abruptly startled them.
Running down the stairs to the swim platform, two deckhands arrived just in time to see the electric hydrofoil battery pack explode violently into flames. Fortunately, a hose was located just inside the transom door and they quickly doused the fire with water. For a second, this seemed to work, and then the fire spontaneously and spectacularly re-ignited.
This is a fictitious scenario, but the risk of a lithium-ion battery igniting is very real and fighting this type of fire is tricky. “It’s considered a metal fire and conventional firefighting doesn’t work well on it. For instance, pouring water on a lithium fire can actually make it appear worse because it kind of makes its own oxygen. It basically cracks the hydrogen out of the water and makes the fire even more fierce,” says Chauncey Naylor, director of Resolve Maritime Academy in Fort Lauderdale.
Regular fire extinguishers may not help either. “They aren’t designed for lithium batteries. You can possibly get a conventional fire extinguisher to put out a fire depending on how intense it is. But most likely it will reflash and catch on fire again; that’s what thermal runaway is. Even after you put the fire out, there’s still heat in that battery and that heat generates a reaction that causes reignition and causes other cells to catch fire,” says Robert Ellis of LiCELL.
Lithium-ion batteries have been used commercially since the 1990s. “Since that time, they have gotten progressively safer. However, if the incident of having a fire with one decreases, but you put significantly more cells into the marketplace, you’re not making that much progress,” Ellis says.
Considering the number of lithium-ion batteries used in consumer products today, fires are rare, yet when they do happen the outcome can be catastrophic. In the U.S. alone, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has noted hundreds of hoverboard battery fires, including some that destroyed homes and caused fatalities. On yachts, Cayman Maritime reports one fire in 2021 that stemmed from the battery pack of an e-foil. In 2018, the 41-meter M/Y Kanga was a total loss in Croatia after an electric surfboard battery caught fire.
In Kanga’s case, the crew had noticed that the battery packs were compromised; sea water was getting in and they were leaking brown liquid. This type of damage is a big warning sign. Other risk factors are overcharging and being exposed to high heat, or there can simply be a manufacturing flaw. “Those things can cause a battery to go into thermal runaway, and once that starts, you’re in trouble — the battery is heading towards a fire,” says Ellis.
Disconcertingly, the cause of combustion can also be a mystery. “According to what I’ve seen, heard, and read, there’s no telltale sign, like battery life. Obviously if something’s damaged, that can lead to failure. But sometimes they just have a mind of their own and, without warning, they just light up,” says Naylor.
Considering the number of lithium-ion batteries used in consumer products today, fires are rare, yet when they do happen the outcome can be catastrophic.
Following the dive boat Conception fire that killed 34 people, which broke out in the salon where multiple devices were being charged, the U.S. Coast Guard published a policy letter for marine inspectors addressing the carriage of lithium-ion batteries on board small passenger vessels. It says inspectors should confirm batteries are charged in regularly occupied spaces with smoke detection, on a single outlet without linking multiple power strips or extension cords. Prior to charging, they should be inspected for signs of damage, and devices should be removed from the charger when fully charged. Any battery showing signs of damage should be placed in a “fire-resistant container (e.g. metal drum) with sand or other extinguishing agent.” The letter also adds that marine inspectors should verify crew understands how to extinguish small lithium-ion battery fires.
Interestingly, the USCG currently does not require firefighting training for Class D combustible metal fires, which include lithium. “It’s really not part of the curriculum at this point, according to the Coast Guard, because it’s relatively new. We add what we believe will help keep people safe, so we do mention lithium, and certainly lithium batteries,” says Naylor.
“At one of the IBEX (conferences), I had a discussion with some representatives from the Coast Guard,” says Ellis. “With how prevalent lithium-battery technology is getting, they realize that this is the 800-pound gorilla that needs to be addressed. The reason there are no real recommendations in place is up until now there’s never been a good solution.”
There is now, though. Ellis is the product line manager of a new brand launched by Sea-Fire Marine called LiCELL. Its products specifically combat lithium-ion fires, including portable extinguishers from 500ml and up, fire kits, and fire blankets designed for batteries. Using an agent called Aqueous Vermiculite Dispersion, the extinguishers “create an oxygen barrier that smothers the fire and then it pulls heat out to cool the battery down,” says Ellis, explaining how it stops thermal runaway. On the market for a year now in the U.S., they are sold through Fire Ranger in South Florida.
“Our biggest customers are the ones that have experienced a lithium battery fire,” he says. “Once you see the intensity of it and the difficulty and the volatility, that’s enough.”
This article originally ran in the March 2022 issue of Dockwalk.