In late 2021, the Australian Government committed to a net zero emissions target by 2050 and invested $20 billion to support renewable and low emissions technologies, such as carbon capture and storage, clean hydrogen, low-cost solar power, and energy storage.
Energy storage in the form of Lithium-ion batteries (LiBs) has become increasingly used and accepted in a wide range of applications across the consumer, residential, commercial, and transport sectors. The same technologies used in portable devices such as mobile phones and laptops are now being used in increasingly larger applications as they have become cheaper and more efficient. Electric scooters, electric vehicles, residential solar battery systems, data centres, and grid scale energy storage systems commonly utilise lithium-ion technology.
With higher usage comes greater risk, and there has been a noticeable increase in reported LiB-related fires and casualties worldwide. Recent incident data from the first quarter of 2022 indicated that one in a hundred fire calls to Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW) involved a battery in thermal runaway, which is an uncontrolled and excessive rise in heat within a battery cell or several battery cells often leading to cell venting and fire.
Some of the potential challenges related to LiB fires for emergency responders and other stakeholders include: a greater fire intensity often accompanied with the violent ejection of vapours and other materials; exposure to toxic and corrosive vapours, gases and fire effluents; increased risk of vapour explosion in confined environments; stranded electrical energy from energised high-voltage battery cells; protracted processes for extinguishing and cooling the reaction; the risk of secondary ignitions following the initial event; difficulties rendering the site safe; the containment of contaminated fire water; and issues with handling, transporting, and disposing of fire-affected batteries.
There is a general lack of guidance and provisions in building codes, standards, and legislation in relation to safety to address the potential risks from these emerging technologies. Part of the problem is that we do not yet know enough about their probability of failure, their mechanisms of failure and potential consequences of failure.
To better understand these issues and risks, FRNSW is currently leading a collaborative research and testing program largely focused on lithium-ion batteries: the Safety of Alternative and Renewable Energy Technologies (SARET) Research Program. FRNSW is partnering with key stakeholders internationally from the private sector, government, tertiary and research institutions and other fire services in order to avoid duplication of effort and to get the most out of its research investment. A significant focus of the program will be to investigate solutions that will mitigate the risks of LiB-related fires and to identify the most effective methods for managing them.
The SARET research program will initially run for two years from July 2022. FRNSW is seeking further funding to support this important research, which will help to ensure the safety of the public and emergency responders as the world races towards carbon neutrality.
Research program streams
Fire service response to lithium battery fires
To assess the effectiveness of new and existing agents, products, and delivery systems for use in fires involving Lithium-ion cells, batteries, and battery systems in comparison with water. It will also provide guidance on the efficacy of current personal protective equipment (PPE) and clothing (PPC) in protecting firefighters from exposures to gases, vapours, liquid electrolytes, chemical residue, and electrical energy present in LiB-related incidents.
End-of-life lithium battery hazard management
To inform the management of hazards related to battery recycling, and the handling, storage, and transportation of damaged and fire-affected lithium-ion batteries and battery systems to minimise the risks of exposure and secondary ignitions to first and second responders.
Electric vehicle fires in structures
To investigate the unique challenges of electric vehicle fires in parking garages and car parks, with aims to quantify the differences between battery-electric vehicles (BEV) and conventional internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEV) with respect to fire severity and propagation, building performance, detection and suppression requirements, air handling and ventilation, access, and charging effects.
Fire propagation in energy storage systems
To provide a better understanding of the fire propagation behaviours of various battery energy storage systems to inform guidance on separation, detection, and protection requirements for new installations, from residential to commercial and grid scale applications.