Ensuring a safe ride towards electrified roads
29 April 2022
As a result of the ongoing electrification of our society, high-performing lithium-ion batteries are being intergrated into a growing range of everyday appliances and products – from smartphones and laptops, to electric vehicles such as trucks, forklifts, and cars. As many are unaware of the risks of a malfunctioning battery, new kinds of challenges are created. “A faulty battery can catch fire and burn for a very long time. It’s nearly impossible to put out a fire from an electric car. We want to raise awareness of how to safely remove these vehicles from our roads – when the status and safety of a battery system is unknown following an accident or other safety related issue during the use phase ,” says Christopher Fuchs, Managing Director of SCC patron Nefab Packaging UK.
Nefab was founded in 1949 in Hälsingland, Sweden. Starting as a small carpentry shop, it is today a global provider of sustainable packaging solutions with presence in more than 30 countries, serving industries such as tele- and datacom, energy, automotive, healthcare, aerospace, and lithium-ion batteries.
More electric vehicles on our roads
The UK will be banning the sale of new fossil fuel-operated cars and vans by 2030. By the end of 2018, there were 200,000 ultra-low emission vehicles, and in 2020, new electric vehicle registrations in the UK increased by 300% compared to 2019. As the demand is only expected to grow, the number of accidents involving electric vehicles will inevitably increase.
Unknown dangers of lithium batteries
The costs of recovering an electric vehicle are huge, not to mention the often unknown dangers of handling a vehicle with a faulty or damaged battery. With an increasing number of electric vehicles on the roads, Nefab has developed a rescue system for transporting and recovering broken down vehicles safely, minimising the risk for the battery to catch fire or explode.
“The biggest problem with this new generation of batteries is the weight and density of energy. For example, a battery in an electric forklift can weigh several tonnes. The more energy – the higher the risks if something were to go wrong,” Christopher explains.
He uses the term “thermal runaway” to describe one of the main risks associated with lithium-ion batteries – a chemical chain reaction causing extremely high temperatures that in the worst case could result in a fire so hot it would be nearly impossible to extinguish. “A thermal runaway can make batteries burn for a very long time, with a very aggressive progression releasing toxic fumes and high energy levels within a very short period of time. I think there is not enough awareness of the risks.”
Safe recovery of electric vehicles
Nefab’s solution builds upon breaking the “triangle of fire” principle. For a fire to occur, you need oxygen, heat, and combustible material. If you would remove one of these elements, there can be no fire.
To recover a crashed electric car, it needs to be transported safely to a place of recovery where the battery is examined and taken care of. To secure the car, it is carefully wrapped in a wrap-around blanket made of Kevlar, a heat-resistant and strong synthetic fibre. The material works also as a gas management system, that allows the smoke to leave the packaging while confining any sparks within the sealed system as the smoke mixes with the oxygen outside of the package. “A burning battery generates very high temperatures, but as there is hardly any oxygen in the packaging, and no sparks exit the seal, you will be protected from a fire or an explosion occuring. In fact, the system emits an inert gas when exposed to high temperatures, and as such actively controls the situation.”
Often, even firefighters don’t know how to approach a vehicle with a lithium-ion battery. A common approach is to submerge the whole vehicle in water, which according to Christopher only makes things worse. “It is a bigger risk to submerge the car in water. Hundreds of thousands of litres of water is contaminated and needs to be treated as dangerous goods when disposed. Also, it can’t be determined whether the battery is damaged, which poses a much bigger safety risk for anyone handling it. Not to mention that the whole car will be ruined.”
“This is one of the reasons why insurance premiums for electric cars are more expensive. We are working with insurance companies in the UK and use our system to safely transport and quarantine the vehicle for examination and recovery. Of course, this takes more time, but in the end, it saves money, is kind to the environment, and the car can be restored. Even the rescue system can be reused, as long as nothing happens with the battery.”
In many cases, emergency and rescue operators have not undergone the proper training to recover electric vehicles. “We regularly see firefighters for instance, who would approach a burning electric vehicle the same way as they would attack a normal combustion engine based vehicle, by opening up the bonnet to expose the engine. But in an electric car, the batteries are located in the base of the car, which is where the fire normally starts.”
Nefab arranges product trainings to educate around the risks associated with lithium-ion batteries, but Christopher calls for more collaboration between different actors to raise awareness. “We focus on the people who use our product. Firefighters, emergency response units, vehicle recovery crews – those are the ones that we want to speak to and advise on the dangers and the dos and don’ts. But we do need to raise a lot of more awareness, and that is done through education. There is no other way around this.”
In addition to working on its solutions for lithium-ion batteries, Nefab continues to research and reinvent the future of packaging by putting a lot of effort into developing new technology and materials, and focusing on finding smart ways to provide greener packaging solutions. One of its more recent innovations is using straw as raw material for a new packaging material – a resource that usually is burned in parts of Asia, where it is sourced, as it is deemed to be useless for local farmers.
“For us it is important not to create so called ‘eco feuds’. For instance, when you take food products and turn them into energy and create fuel or bio diesel, the price of these commodities will go up, and the people buying these products will be badly hit. Taking this into account, we want to put additional value into the sources we get the raw material from,” Christopher explains. “By using straw that normally would have been burned, we put money into the system supporting the local communities. On top of that, we are creating a much more sustainable product, it is more durable with a longer life-span and can be recycled as paper.”
Making informed decisions
To enable its customers to make informed decisions, Nefab performs life cycle analyses of the environmental impact of its packaging solutions, from raw materials all the way to their end of life.“ How much does the packaging contribute to the customer’s overall environmental footprint? What effect does the density of the packaging have on the transport? How much goods can the packaging hold? Can it be reused and how is it taken care of when it reaches its end of life? It is not only a matter of cost savings, but to make the environmental impact of your organisation visible.”