Maritime transport of lithium batteries during the transition to electric mobility
The news events of 2023, and these first weeks of 2024, continue to highlight the increase in marine casualties related to the transport of lithium-ion batteries, particularly when they are part vehicles.
During the transportation of batteries, or goods powered by them, fires have occurred on several occasions, causing extensive damage to the ships on which they were loaded, raising, among other things, issues of possible shipper and/or manufacturer liability.
The incidents thus caused have affected the maritime industry across the board; in fact, they have occurred not only on container ships, ro-ros, and car carriers, but also on-board yachts, in some cases caused by the malfunction of so-called toys, such as seascooters and similar.
Although recent research by the International Union of Marine Insurance shows that fires caused by transportation of lithium-ion battery-powered vehicles are no more frequent than those caused by conventionally powered vehicles, battery combustion presents greater risks related to the peculiarities of such batteries, including thermal runaway.
This may be caused by multiple triggers that engender a chain reaction that is capable of self-feeding, resulting in a sharp temperature rise and, in some cases, the explosion of the battery itself. The danger associated with these fires stems from the fact that traditional firefighting systems may prove ineffective as they are unable to interrupt the chain reaction and thus extinguish the fire onboard.
In light of the analysis of recent years’ data that see a significant increase in claims caused by these types of fires, underwriters and IMO have expressed concern that new rules are needed.
To date, lithium-ion batteries, and the goods powered by them (including vehicles), under the UN Model Regulations and the IMDG Code are classified “Class 9” or the least dangerous classification and, with proper declaration in accordance with the above regulations, may be stowed above and below deck and together with other dangerous goods.
In October last year, the IMO itself, also considering the growth of the electric car market, announced that new rules will be introduced for the transportation of such goods.
Most likely, the IMO’s desired measures will materialize in 2026, when Amendment 42-24 of the IMDG Code will come into effect, according to the Amendment Cycle.
In fact, the most recent version, Amendment 41-22, came into force on January 1, 2024, but did not make substantial changes as only the requirement to include the shipper’s telephone number among the information was included.
The new regulatory framework resulting from the entry into force of Amendment 42-24 is therefore awaited, the preparatory work of which is likely to be conditioned by the analysis of the data on this type of casualties that will occur in the coming years.