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What's being done to solve the problem of exploding batteries on cargo ships


Lithium-ion batteries are used in everything from electric cars to smartphones, and over the past several years, they've been exploding on airplanes, in people's homes and on cargo ships. Our colleagues over at The Indicator From Planet Money, Wailin Wong and Darian Woods, spoke to a former cargo ship captain about this issue and what's being done to solve it.

DARIAN WOODS, BYLINE: Captain Rahul Khanna spent 14 years at sea in charge of cargo ships, transporting everything from oil to iron ore to grain.

WAILIN WONG, BYLINE: Today, Rahul is the global head of marine risk consulting at the insurance company Allianz. That's a fancy way of saying he spends his time thinking about all the things that can go wrong at sea. And lately, a big problem for the maritime industry is lithium-ion battery fires.

RAHUL KHANNA: 2017, I think, was the time that we recognized it first. We started to see regular fires, regular incidents happening. And at that time, we thought this was an emerging trend. Fast-forward a few more years, now it's almost an emergency.

WOODS: In 2022, Allianz looked at five years' worth of marine insurance claims, and it found that fire and explosion was the most costly kind of loss. It was also one of the top causes of total losses, which is when nothing can be recovered from a ship.

WONG: While Rahul says these fires are an urgent issue for the maritime industry, overall, these battery fires are still not that common. One estimate put the failure rate at 1 out of every 10 million lithium-ion batteries.

WOODS: But there are a lot of batteries out there, and it keeps growing. And even one failure can result in a fire with catastrophic consequences. Some fires have resulted in deaths, and it's because it's a dangerous kind of fire that gets super hot super fast.

WONG: Previous fires have shown that water can put out a lithium-ion battery fire - eventually. But it takes a whole lot of water. And because it's so hard to bring down the battery's temperature, the fire can keep reigniting. There's even a risk of explosion because of flammable vapors that can ignite.

WOODS: Allianz, the insurance company where Rahul works, says that because shipboard fires are so hard to extinguish, the focus should be on prevention. And this responsibility falls on the entire supply chain for lithium-ion batteries.

KHANNA: So to start from, we have the manufacturers who have responsibility in producing a quality product and doing everything as much as possible by the book.

WONG: Rahul says a lot of battery manufacturers sprang up in response to the huge consumer demand for electronic devices, and the quality of these batteries can be uneven. A poorly made battery can be a real hazard.

KHANNA: And then you have the shippers who are packaging, transporting it from the factories to the ships and then stuffing them in containers.

WONG: Batteries need to be stored in a certain way to prevent fires from starting, and they're supposed to be labeled as lithium batteries so that they're handled properly while in transit.

KHANNA: Misdeclared cargo has been going around in the shipping industry for a long time, but it has now become a problem which we really need to deal with.

WOODS: Allianz says that some container ship operators are beefing up inspections and imposing higher fines on misdeclared cargo. And when it comes to improving safety on the ships themselves, Rahul says that people in the industry, along with the United Nations, are talking about updating regulations around what kinds of fire detection systems should be required on board.

WONG: Wailin Wong.

WOODS: Darian Woods, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong is a long-time business and economics journalist who's reported from a Chilean mountaintop, an embalming fluid factory and lots of places in between. She is a host of The Indicator from Planet Money. Previously, she launched and co-hosted two branded podcasts for a software company and covered tech and startups for the Chicago Tribune. Wailin started her career as a correspondent for Dow Jones Newswires in Buenos Aires. In her spare time, she plays violin in one of the oldest community orchestras in the U.S.
Darian Woods is a reporter and producer for The Indicator from Planet Money. He blends economics, journalism, and an ear for audio to tell stories that explain the global economy. He's reported on the time the world got together and solved a climate crisis, vaccine intellectual property explained through cake baking, and how Kit Kat bars reveal hidden economic forces.