A ship carrying 800 tonnes of Li-Ion batteries caught fire. What could possibly go wrong?

Less than you might imagine, thankfully

The US Coast Guard has advised that a ship carrying around 800 tonnes of Lithium-Ion batteries – some of which caught fire – is out of danger after its crew handled the situation admirably.

This story starts when the good ship Genius Star XI left South Korea on December 17, bound for the United States. According to Maritime News, the voyage struck trouble on Christmas Day when some of the batteries caught fire. The vessel's crew reportedly used carbon dioxide to douse the blaze, but it spread a little before being contained.

When such batteries catch fire, they are at risk of thermal runaway. When that happens, expect a lot of heat, fire, and nasty smoke. A ship carrying 800 tonnes of Li-Ions, all blazing away fiercely, is not a pleasant prospect.

On the 28th, the US Coast Guard received a report of a "contained but ongoing" fire aboard the vessel.

Two days later, the Coast Guard advised that a preliminary assessment of the vessel's condition led to the conclusion that "the vessel is stable with no indication of heat in the cargo holds."

Phew.

But on New Year's Eve the authorities were still not satisfied the Genius Star XI was ready to resume its voyage. The USCG reported that the atmosphere inside the affected cargo hold remained non-flammable, indicating no immediate risk of fire, but the hold remains sealed.

The ship has been told to park near Broad Bay, Alaska, and emergency towing facilities are in place in case it needs to be towed to a place where it can do no harm.

The intended purpose of the batteries aboard Genius Star XI is unclear. Nor is the cause of the fire known – an important matter, given Li-Ion batteries can catch fire if they're crushed, pierced, or otherwise damaged, which could easily happen aboard a storm-tossed ship. Badly made Li-Ions can also go up spontaneously if the separators between cathode and anode fail.

The world is increasingly reliant on Li-Ion batteries, which power everything from electric vehicles to portable electronics – and even oil tankers. One such vessel caught fire in late 2022 after a Li-Ion battery exploded – an ironic conflagration of old and new energy sources. ®

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