Lithium-ion’s looming legacy

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Dr Burton A. Clark, EFO, highlights the rising risks in fire safety due to technological advances like Lithium-ion batteries and the dire need for strategic responses

In a statement made on February 29, 2024, before the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology of the US House of Representatives, Daniel R.

Munsey, MPA, EFO, CFO, Fire Chief of San Bernardino County, CA, said: “Lithium-ion batteries are an important part of our future, and we are several years behind in our fire services ability to educate, regulate, and respond to potential emergencies involving lithium-ion batteries.”

His statement rings true as today the fire service is scrambling to figure out how to prevent, respond to, and recover from Lithium-ion battery fires.

Take these incidents for example.

Incidents involving electric vehicles

On 28 February 2022, the Felicity Ace, a large cargo vessel transporting both electric and non-electric vehicles, sank in the Atlantic Ocean, about 400 kilometers off the Azores.

This incident occurred thirteen days after a fire broke out on board while the ship was en route from Germany to the United States.

All 22 crew members had been previously evacuated by Portugal’s Air Force.

Authorities speculate that the fire might have been ignited by lithium batteries in the electric vehicles, though the investigation was still ongoing at the time.

In April 2022, an electric bus operated by RATP in Paris caught fire following a battery explosion, an incident captured on video.

The fire occurred on Friday, April 29, on a Line 71 bus in Paris’ 13th arrondissement.

A video showed a small explosion on the bus’s roof, where the batteries were located, quickly escalating into a massive blaze that engulfed the entire vehicle.

Approximately thirty firefighters were mobilised to handle the situation.

The bus was a Bolloré brand Bluebus 5SE series, a 100% electric vehicle, and notably, this was not the first instance of such a bus catching fire, as another bus of the same model had burned earlier in April.

In response to this incident, RATP made the decision to temporarily withdraw all 149 Bolloré electric bluebuses from service on its network as a precautionary measure.

In May 2023, London Fire Brigade released footage of an e-scooter charging in a Harlesden home that suddenly burst into flames, leading to a major fire and explosion.

The tenant narrowly escaped harm but suffered smoke inhalation.

The Brigade’s #ChargeSafe campaign used this example to emphasise the importance of safe charging practices for e-scooters, advocating for outdoor charging and cautioning against leaving them unattended while charging.

In the early hours of June 20, 2023, a devastating fire, caused by lithium-ion batteries, erupted at an e-bike service store at 80 Madison Street, near Chinatown, New York City.

The blaze claimed the lives of four individuals, aged between 62 and 80, and left two others critically injured.

Around 140 firefighters battled the three-alarm fire, which also impacted residential apartments above the store.

 The fire, deemed accidental, originated from a lithium-ion battery on the first floor.

Prior to this tragedy, the store had been cited for violations related to lithium-ion battery charging and storage.

These incidents all underscore the urgent need for greater regulation and safety measures concerning lithium-ion batteries in densely populated urban environments.

The fire loss from lithium-ion batteries will only increase and the cost of prevention and mitigation will be staggering.

The Prometheus Paradox

The fire service has been and still is a reactionary discipline.

We believe we can handle anything thrown at us because we have in the past, we can in the future.

This way of thinking has come at a great cost to firefighter morbidity and mortality just look at our causality rates, suicide rates, and traumatic injury rates.

We and society are still stuck on the idea that firefighter death and injury is part of the job and somehow heroic.

I joined the fire service in 1970. Frank Branigan was my first fire service professor.

Hazardous materials and Lightweight wood and steel construction were the issues of the day and in many cases still are.

At the same time scientists began developing what would become the lithium-ion battery.

In 2019 the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham, and Akira Yoshino, for their work in developing this battery.

The Nobel organisation states: “This lightweight, rechargeable, and powerful battery is now used in everything from mobile phones to laptops and electric vehicles.

“It can also store significant amounts of energy from solar and wind power, making possible a fossil fuel-free society.”

But who is now thinking about the next challenge firefighters will face in the future?

Stronger than steel

A recent headline in MIT’s newsletter sent chills up my spine. It read: “New lightweight material is stronger than steel. The new substance is the result of a feat thought to be impossible: polymerizing a material in two dimensions.”

This article explained why the new material is a significate breakthrough in polymer science: “Polymer scientists have long hypothesized that if polymers could be induced to grow into a two-dimensional sheet, they should form extremely strong, lightweight materials.

However, many decades of work in this field led to the conclusion it was impossible to create such sheets.

One reason was if just one monomer rotates up or down, out of the plane of the growing sheet, the material will begin expanding in three dimensions and the sheet-like structure will be lost.”

Such a material could be used as a lightweight, durable coating for car parts or cell phones, or as a building material for bridges or other structures, says Michael Strano, the Carbon P.

Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and the senior author of the new study.

“We don’t usually think of plastics as being something that you could use to support a building, but with this material, you can enable new things,” he says.

“It has very unusual properties and we’re very excited about them.”

The question I would ask MIT is, what happens when the material is subjected to unwanted fire like a cell phone fire, or car fire, or building fire?

How many more scientific breakthroughs are potential challenges for the future fires service?

Who is thinking about and asking these questions?

Fire culture change

The people and events in our life are what challenge and inspire us to do better.

This innate human desire is what helps us evolve and prosper as a species.

We are inspired to create new science, technology, engineering, and math which results in economic, social, political, and technological change for all our cultures.

But, with that change comes opportunity and danger at the individual, family, community, state, and global levels.

Uncontrolled fire is one of those dangers to humans.

Fire culture is the result of interrelated social, political, economic, and technological decisions being driven by multiple stakeholders with divergent motivation.

When cheaper, faster, and lighter result in more profit in the built environment fire safety becomes a minor factor in the decision-making process.

The fallback implied decision is “We can always call the fire department when all else fails.” Lithium batterie fires and cladding fires on high-rise buildings, not to mention wildfires indicate there is a limit to what firefighters can do.

Who will lead us to the future fire culture? The rate, volume, and novelty of change will only increase.

To prevent and survive future fire risk, the fire service must standup and be heard.

We cannot what for them to call us – that will always be too late.

Dr. Burton A. Clark, with over five decades in fire service, is an esteemed educator, author, and expert in fire safety, holding influential roles in academia and fire service organisations.

This article was originally published in the April 2024 issue of International Fire & Safety Journal. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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