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Toxic fume danger as experts called in to extinguish lithium battery fire on Atlantic cargo ship

Lithium-ion battery fires burn at extremely high temperatures and produce noxious gases

Graig Graziosi
Saturday 19 February 2022 15:25 GMT
Cargo ship carrying hundreds of Porsches is left to burn in Atlantic sea

Specialists will be needed to put out a raging fire on an abandoned cargo ship in the Atlantic Ocean due to complications from burning lithium-ion batteries inside the thousands of luxury cars aboard the vessel.

A number of electric luxury cars caught fire aboard the ship, which was then abandoned as the blaze spread throughout the vessel. According to Reuters, it is unclear if the batteries started the fire, or if the fire started elsewhere and spread to the batteries.

“The ship is burning from one end to the other ... everything is on fire about five metres above the water line,” the ship's captain, Joao Mendes Cabecas, told the outlet.

Experts are now going to be called out to help stop the blaze, as burning lithium-ion batteries can be difficult to stop. Lithium-ion battery fires often require dry chemicals or total flooding of the battery with water to stop.

According to a study done in 2013 by the German Federal Ministry of Transport, Building, and Urban Development, the batteries burn extremely hot and produce noxious gases.

“In the event of a lithium ion battery catching fire, it is important to note that such a fire reaches very high temperatures, produces toxic gases and is inextinguishable,” the report concluded.

Fires caused by the batteries – or which they are caught up in – have become a major concern for international shipping entities, particularly as electric vehicles become more affordable and popular among consumers.

The US Transportation Research Board funded a 2022 study noting the risks and a lack of current readiness to deal with potential fires.

“Lithium-ion battery fire risks are currently undermanaged in transit operations,” the study said.

The Portuguese maritime authority shared photos of extensive burning along the bow and side of the ship.

The ship, the Felicity Ace, was on its way from Germany to a port in Rhode Island when it began broadcasting distress signals on Wednesday. The crew of 22 evacuated the ship, but the more 1,000 Porches, nearly 200 Bentleys and an unknown number of Audis were left aboard.

The owner of the vessel is planning to have the ship towed closer to shore, where response crews can more efficiently work to stop the blaze.

The first salvage teams reached the ship today, and will work alongside fire crews to try to salvage the cargo and the vessel.

In the meantime, a Portuguese warship has been deployed to monitor the cargo ship's drift and ensure it does not threaten the nation's coast or other ships.

There is no official estimate of the financial damages caused by the blaze, but the cost will likely exceed $150m. The ship's hull has a value of about $30m, and the vehicles onboard have a total cost of more than $100m.

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