Risks and precautions for lithium-ion battery transport on ships highlighted by oil tanker fire

November 17, 2023

Fire hazards of lithium-ion batteries in maritime contexts

On November 13, 2022, the oil tanker S-Trust experienced a significant fire while docked at the Genesis Port Allen Terminal in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) identified the cause of the fire as a thermal runaway of a cell within a lithium-ion battery in a handheld radio.

The fire led to extensive damage, totaling $3 million, though no injuries were reported​​.

The mechanism of lithium-ion battery fires

Lithium-ion battery fires, such as the one on S-Trust, typically originate from a thermal runaway.

This is a chemical reaction that can cause a cell to ignite and explode.

Cells in lithium-ion batteries can spontaneously undergo thermal runaway when damaged, shorted, overheated, defective, or overcharged​​.

Preventative measures for lithium-ion battery safety

To mitigate the risks of thermal runaway and subsequent fires, crews are advised to adhere to specific safety measures.

These include following manufacturers’ instructions for battery care and maintenance, proper disposal of damaged batteries, avoiding unsupervised charging, and keeping batteries and chargers away from heat sources and flammable materials​​.

Certification and fire response

The NTSB report also emphasizes the importance of using lithium-ion batteries and devices with certifications from organizations like Underwriters Laboratory.

In the event of a lithium-ion battery fire, crews should use water, foam, CO2, or dry chemical agents suitable for Class A fires.

If the fire cannot be extinguished, the aim should be to control the burn, including monitoring for other cells that may experience thermal runaway and preventing the spread to other combustibles​​​​.

FSJA Comment

The incident on the S-Trust oil tanker underscores the critical importance of stringent safety protocols when transporting lithium-ion batteries on ships.

Lithium-ion batteries are ubiquitous in modern technology, from personal devices to essential communication equipment in maritime operations.

However, their propensity for thermal runaway poses significant fire risks, especially in confined and complex environments like ships.

The incident illustrates the necessity of rigorous adherence to safety guidelines and the use of certified batteries to mitigate these risks.

Moreover, this event highlights the importance of effective fire response strategies onboard vessels, emphasizing the need for preparedness and training in handling such emergencies.

The maritime industry must continue to prioritize safety measures to prevent similar incidents, ensuring the protection of both property and lives at sea.

About the National Transportation Safety Board

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is an independent U.S. government investigative agency responsible for civil transportation accident investigation. It conducts investigations into aviation, highway, marine, railroad, and pipeline accidents, providing thorough and impartial analysis to improve transportation safety. The NTSB’s findings and recommendations from incidents like the S-Trust fire are vital in shaping safety standards and practices in the transportation sector.

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