Startling new evidence has emerged showing a dramatic increase in fires caused by exploding electric vehicle batteries in the U.K. There was a sharp rise last year, particularly in London where fires jumped from 32 in 2020 to 102 in 2021 and already 98 recorded in the first half of this year. The information comes from a recent Freedom of Information request made by the health and safety consultancy CE Safety, who contacted all 50 fire and rescue services. Statistics were unavailable from 11 services, including Scotland, leading CE Safety to suggest these results “only tell half the story around this trend”.
Electric vehicle (EV) sales have risen of late and the fire trend, notably in London, is undoubtedly growing. In Merseyside, there were 16 fires in 2021, and so far there have been 13 for the first half of this year. The number of scooters catching fire is much higher than other vehicles across Britain, but in London electric cars are the prime fire culprit, followed by bikes, vans, buses and motorbikes.
EV battery explosions are a much more serious fire incident than conflagrations in internal combustion vehicles. Explosions can occur very quickly, triggering the release of highly toxic gases. They are very difficult to extinguish, and present considerable safety issues for fire workers who tackle the blaze. Since they are chemical fires, it is not possible to extinguish them by cutting off the oxygen supply. The fire often takes hours to control, and can reignite hours or days after it was thought to be out.
The risks involved with large lithium-ion batteries have been known for some time, although the desire to promote ‘green’ transport means discussion is often muted. Paul Christensen, Professor of Pure and Applied Electrochemistry at Newcastle University, notes that a lithium-ion battery stores a huge amount of energy in a very small space. “Since 2008, the adoption of such batteries has outstripped our appreciation of their risks,” he notes. Batteries can catch fire if perforated, but, “more worryingly”, contamination of just one cell during manufacture can lead to a spontaneous fire. “Even the most experienced and careful manufacturers have defective electric cells passing through their very careful quality control systems,” he adds.
Many of the fires occur during recharging, something that often occurs in or near domestic premises, although spontaneous combustion can also occur if the battery pack is knocked or damaged at any point. In June this year, the failure of an e-scooter battery caused a fire in a 12th floor flat in Shepherd’s Bush. At the time, the London Fire Brigade said it had seen a “huge spike” in e-bike and scooter incidents. It has issued a number of warnings, pointing out how ferocious the fires can be. A similar incident involving an e-scooter battery explosion occurred in April causing substantial damage to a flat in Portsmouth.
In May, six buses were engulfed in flames at a terminal at Potters Bar following a battery recharging explosion. A local resident described the scene in the following terms: “I just heard an unbelievable noise that sounded like a jet and when I looked out my window one of the buses exploded in a ball of flames”. CE Safety notes that in London, 19 bus fires have had to be extinguished.