Losses Estimated at $334M For Cargo Ship Fire, as Lithium-Ion Batteries Burned More Than a Week

“Volkswagen AG has lost hope that many of its roughly 4,000 vehicles aboard a cargo ship that caught fire last week in the Atlantic can be saved,” Bloomberg reported Friday, citing estimates that the total cargo loss for the Felicity Ace could exceed a third of a billion dollars.

“The blaze is believed to have lasted more than a week after the Panama-flagged ship’s crew members were evacuated and it was left adrift.”

VW’s Golf compact cars and ID.4 electric crossovers were among the vehicles aboard the ship, according to an internal email last week from the automaker’s U.S. operation. Headquartered in Wolfsburg, Germany, the group manufactures cars under brands including VW, Porsche, Audi and Lamborghini — all of which were on the ship.
Earlier this week Qz.com argued that the fire was being fueled by lithium-ion batteries. Slashdot reader McGruber shared their report:

It’s not clear if the batteries contributed to the fire starting in the first place — a greasy rag in a lubricant-slicked engine room or a fuel leak are the usual suspects in ship fires — but the batteries are keeping the flames going now.

A forensic investigation will take months to determine the cause. [Last] Saturday, João Mendes CabeÃas, captain of the port of Faial, the nearest Azorean island, told Reuters that the batteries in the ship’s cargo are “keeping the fire alive….” Large quantities of dry chemicals are needed to smother lithium ion battery fires, which burn hotter and release noxious gases in the process. Pouring water onto the Felicity Ace wouldn’t put out a lithium-ion battery fire, CabeÃas told Reuters, and the added water weight could make the ship more unstable.

Electric vehicle fires are rare, but pose their own kind of flammability risk, and one that becomes heightened as EVs go mainstream. Large numbers of EVs grouped together, as when they are transported by cargo ship, or electric buses parked in an overnight lot, raise the risk that one flaming battery could ignite a chain reaction in adjacent batteries. According to a research proposal at the National Academy of Sciences’ Transportation Research Board, “Lithium-ion battery fire risks are currently undermanaged in transit operations.”

There have been more than 35 large lithium-ion battery fires since 2018, Paul Christensen, an expert in lithium fires, told the Financial Times, including a 13-ton Tesla megapack storage battery in Victoria Australia that burned for three days. An electric ferry in Norway caught fire in 2019, and in April 2021, a battery fire at a Beijing mall killed two firefighters.

In addition, car-carrying ships and ferries can face higher risks from fires, according to insurer Allianz Global’s head of marine risk. Due to the internal areas not being divided to make it easier to transport cars, when a fire starts it can spread more easily.

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