India is not at a point where it is appropriately equipped to deal with EV fire mishaps, especially in comparison to the West. Admittedly, the EV adoption in Europe, China and America is much higher. Hence, the policymakers and fire departments recommend many protocols to deal with such horrendous situations. Now, we have seen countless EV fire incidents in India as well. Most of these pertain to two-wheelers. However, there is a lot to be done in reference to writing a protocol to douse fire in lithium-ion batteries. Note that a fire in an EV battery is different from all the other fires. Let us dig deep into this topic.
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Chemistry of EV Fires
When a traditional gasoline-powered vehicle is engulfed in flames, conventional methods such as applying water to cut off the oxygen supply prove effective. Additionally, fire extinguishers can be employed to manage the situation, and people are familiar with the appropriate response in such incidents. However, the most alarming aspect of electric vehicles catching fire lies in their unique challenges. It is well-known that most EV batteries utilize Lithium-ion chemistry with metals like Nickel, Cobalt, and Manganese, along with liquid electrolytes.
Typically, the battery is securely sealed, and designed to remain intact even in unfortunate circumstances. However, if the EV battery ignites, most standard procedures become ineffective in extinguishing the fire. The explanation is straightforward – the components of the EV battery become the fuel themselves, leading to a phenomenon known as Thermal Runaway. This occurs as the electrolyte decomposes, releasing not only Oxygen but also other toxic gases such as Carbon Monoxide, Hydrogen Cyanide, Hydrofluoric Acid, and Cobalt. In such situations, simply pouring water or fire extinguishers are rendered useless.
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What is even more horrific is the fact that even if somehow you manage to douse off the fire in an EV battery temporarily, it could still re-ignite automatically in a few minutes. Therefore, once the EV battery catches fire, it could last for 2-3 days. We have seen such situations with many two-wheelers in India in the last couple of years. If you manage to take the EV to an isolated location away from anything other than burning components and objects, the burning of chemicals releases toxic fumes which are hazardous in nature. Therefore, completely new methods are needed to tackle EV fires.
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Preparation for EV Fire Mishaps in India
After a huge surge in the number of EV fire cases in India in the last couple of years, the government and the fire department sprung into action. New battery safety norms came into existence starting December 1, 2022. These were introduced by the Road and Transport Ministry. An official statement said, “To strengthen the safety parameters for the testing of the batteries used in Electric Vehicles, Amendment-2, which was effective from October 1, 2022, was issued to both the Automotive Industry Standards (AIS)-156 and AIS-038 (Rev 2). For the OEMs to be better equipped to comply / implement the provisions prescribed under the standards AIS-156 and AIS 038 (rev 2), Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) has decided to implement the Amendment 3 of the said AIS, as hosted on Ministry’s website, in two phases: Phase 1 w.e.f. December 1, 2022 and Phase 2 w.e.f. March 31, 2023.”
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Furthermore, the government had also ordered to set up a committee to investigate the matter over safety concerns. Hence, the MoRTH introduced additional safety provisions. In addition to the MoRTH, there are various state governments who are devising effective policies to deal with such cases. Apart from that, we need to learn from countries where this is a more prevalent issue. For instance, EV sales in the USA are monumentally high in comparison to India. It would be critical to learn from the policies and techniques the governments and fire departments are deploying there to combat EV fires.
In fact, in one of the recent incidents, an EV fire was reported in the garage of a house in the USA. Thankfully, the smoke detectors were able to notify the owners who were able to get out of the house in time. No one suffered any injury from the fire. However, the EV in their garage was engulfed in flames. It took the rescue team considerable and specific efforts to take care of the situation. They had to use an EV fire blanket which costs $3,000 (approx. Rs 2.5 lakh). The fire department personnel had to wrap it around the EV to prevent oxygen from entering the burning battery. All this while, the fire workers were wearing breathing apparatus to ensure that they didn’t take in the toxic fumes. Hence, a lot of caution must be exercised to deal with EV fires.
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With an increase in the number of EV sales across the globe, appropriate safety measures and equipment need to arrive as well. This requires work on the end of car companies to construct safer batteries, governments to devise effective policies, as well as fire departments to bring in new methods and materials to deal with this scenario. In this manner, India needs to prepare for EV fire mishaps which will only increase with an increase in electric cars.
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