The Appliance Of Science

He’ll never sell any ice-creams going at that speed…

(c) e1group

School was never a favourite period of life for your author, but one aspect of physics lessons in particular remains lodged in the mind – the fact that water and electricity do not mix well. Therefore, as we career toward an electrical vehicular future, how do we go deal with the worst happening – an electrical fire caused by either malfunction or accident?

Today, Britain has over 23 million vehicles road-bound with around 400,000 propelled by some form of electricity. Exponential growth in the coming years will see these figures shift ever-upwards, so one hopes the manufacturers will conduct their safety research measures with due haste and alacrity.

Worryingly, Euro-Ford and BMW have recently recalled over 46,000 cars in total prompted by “battery process production problems,” 5,000 alone on this sceptered isle. Another 20,000 of the Blue Oval’s Kuga’s required a return to the workshop after one example caught fire – overheating when recharging. Similarly, 80,000 Hyundai Kona’s required remedial activity (replacement batteries) when the ugly head of a fire risk was found.

Expensive to manufacture, equally so (maybe more) in eradicating such lethal issues, but lithium-ion has become the accepted way forward – a lot of energy in a compact package. Vehicles, however powered do sometimes catch fire. In 2019, the London Fire Brigade attended over 2,000 vehicular fires, fifty being of an electrical nature. However caused, batteries, once punctured and exposed to the natural elements brew up lethal cocktails of gases, known as thermal runway; two out of over a hundred being hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide, by themselves lethal to occupants or passers-by. As with any fire, best not to hang around; call the trained and kitted out experts who can deal with matters.

This used to be a Tesla. (c) Reuters

Returning momentarily to that distant Physics lesson, when a vehicle is on fire, regardless of fuel, the appliance in question nominally carries many litres of water, by far the most successful fire suppressant. Research has found the average car fire requires over a thousand litres per minute just to contain, not extinguish.

Worse still, manufacturers have informed the emergency services that a controlled burn may be the answer; that is let the vehicle[1] merrily burn away whilst the surrounding environment is safely contained. The subsequent environmental damage due to battery fires sadly similar to that of diesel spills or burning tyres. And typically a car fire can close a road for eight hours as that controlled burn continues – imperfect news for all concerned – somewhat akin to a lead acid battery at a balloon festival.

Worse still, the now fire-damaged car requires storage. Even when extinguished, an electrical re-flare can occur at almost any time, fresh headaches for those hard pressed emergency services. And it’s not just a firefighter’s problem. Suppression systems for such locations as multi-storey car parks, ferries and tunnels will require seriously enhanced investment in order to combat this potential hazard.

Beware of burning leaves. Electrek

Fortunately, technology is not restricted to connecting your mobile device to that of the computer with wheels, your car. The emergency service sector has access to many electrical wisdoms in order for them to perform their duties more efficiently.

The first being what fuels the car: determining that the fire involves an electrical vehicle in advance can have the attendant crews suitably attired in breathing apparatus, ready for the chemical concoction awaiting them. Support crews then cordon off areas, preparing spill kits for the inevitable environmental impact whilst drones can observe the scenario from above – more vehicles involved, request back up, etc. In such difficult circumstances, forewarned is forearmed with today’s average fire appliance capable of dealing with a huge array of problems. Long gone the days of just a hose, horn and blue light – even fewer brass helmets.

Nominally, that appliance attending to the incident promptly will be diesel powered. All which will no doubt conform to the latest euro emissions standards, but electrical power is not a car-exclusive domain. You’re likely to see the next fire engine before you hear it – send in the all electric fire appliance.

(c) e1group

Cumnock, near Ayr, Scotland based Emergency One Group Ltd (E1) have recently introduced the world’s first fully electrically powered fire appliance – the E1 EV0, Electric Vehicle, Zero Emissions. Built in their 16,000 square metered production and sales facility, the appliance has a 280Kwh battery capable of a 350kw drive, providing a 200 mile range. A full 100% recharge can be obtained within two hours. Regenerative braking along with solar panel charging assists not only the drive but powers the all important controls for the contained media; 1,750 litres of water or 100 litres of foam. As with vehicles of this nature, almost everything is configurable to specific requirements. This version is on a Volvo chassis, for example.

Inevitable in many ways, yet part of me becomes saddened at this momentum gathering so silently, barring the obvious Doppler effect from the blues and twos. Observing an engine hurtling along is an enigmatic scene; one in which, unless it’s your own pride and joy smouldering away, you may never know the premise of the rush, never mind the outcome. Prayers follow each occasion. Not hearing those efficient, smooth yet powerful sounding diesels will be yet another sobering reminder of the ever-increasing rise of electrical power.

Where the magic happens. (c) e1group

Maintaining that strict division between those molecules of hydrogen and oxygen from the stuff that gave life to Frankenstein’s monster will never be resolved. For hearing diesels powering fire engines, we must go larger than the everyday appliance – to the airport we must head – dealt with in the next chapter.

[1] Owing to their size, internal suppression systems for lorries and buses are progressing.

Data sources: Peter Wilkinson – Emergency Services Times, June 2021/ Terri Wills – Climate Change Committee brief, 2020.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

24 thoughts on “The Appliance Of Science”

  1. Good morning, Andrew Based on the figures your article it’s easy to work out 1,7% of the vehicles on UK road are (partly) electric, yet 2,5% of vehicle fires involves an EV. Cause for attention I would say.

    Another issue with electric cars is that as far as I know EV’s are most likely to burn during charging. An electrical (chemical) fires burns way hotter than a gasoline fire. So hot in fact that steel reinforcement in concrete will lose enough strength to make the building collapse. Cause for very serious attention I would say.

    In the underground parking garage of my apartment building there are a few EV’s. Apparently there’s a law in the making that allows EV owner to put a charging station in the collective parking garage without other garage users vote (something which is mandatory) Cause for alarm I would say.

    Alternatively I could move to a detached house in the countryside. Not very likely considering current real estate prices.

  2. Good morning Andrew. A very interesting piece indeed and a reminder that there are upsides and downsides to all that we humans do.
    I have seen examples of EV’s that have run out of charge on motorways but fortunately have never seen one on fire. Those images in your article are a sobering example of what could happen.
    I also watched a documentary about Tesla recently which highlighted the use of cobalt in their batteries and how it is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Not pleasant viewing.

    1. Hi Mike,

      I entered “tesla reduces cobalt content” into a search engine and quickly discovered that the company has been extremely proactive on this issue. In fact they now offer a zero cobalt content battery (lithium iron phosphate) on the Model 3. Also Telsa have drastically reduced the cobalt content in the other batteries they make, and have taken measures to insure that the cobalt they do use is “ethically” sourced.

  3. The real problem of lithium based energy stores is related not so much to Physics but to Chemistry. We all remember the experiment where the Chemistry teacher took a piece of sodium wire and showed how it ignited spontaneously through contact with the humidity of surrounding air.
    This tendency of spontaneous ignition through contact with surrounding humid air is common to lithium, sodium and potassium and it is higher the smaller the atom is. The smallest atom of the three is —- Lithium.
    Keeping lithium and water separated from each other is one of the biggest problems in battery manufacturing.
    By the way, just search for experiences from the RC model community with exploding LiPo batteries.

  4. Good morning Andrew. Interesting and sobering stuff, thank you. Not related to EV fires, but to the practicalities of charging, I happened upon this YouTube video yesterday evening:

    In summary, it suggests that we have a long way to go (in the UK) before the charging network is anywhere near adequate for EVs to be a practical proposition for the majority of ‘serious’ drivers. Even if we get that sorted out, there remains the issue of our electricity generation capacity, which is forecast to be pretty stretched over the years ahead as we move away from fossil fuels.

    1. Hi John. That’s a remarkably sanguine viewpoint, given all the talk couple of years ago about a prospective ‘pinch point’ in the late 2020s as fossil fuel and old nuclear power stations would be decommissioned. Time will tell, I suppose.

  5. Fascinating – and all a bit worrying. After last night’s storm, many emergency vehicles have gone past my house, possibly on the way to the motorway. It always makes one think “I hope everyone’s all right”.

    I had no idea that there were electric fire engines – makes sense, I suppose. We’ve come a long way since the days of Green Goddesses.

    I’m looking forward very much to the second part.

  6. Better hope you’re not driving a Tesla that catches fire. There was a lawsuit a couple of years ago after a man in Florida burned to death in his Model S. The first responders couldn’t open the doors to save him because the retractable door handles hadn’t popped open.

    Apparently Elon Musk insisted on the use of such handles against the protests of his engineers.

    1. The same caveat would apply to the Jaguar I-Pace and (Ford) Mustang Mach-E, I guess.

    2. Retractable flush door handles are up there with rear view cameras in place of mirrors at the top of my personal list of over engineered solutions that are actually less fit for purpose than the simple ones they replace. Doors that lock/unlock based on the proximity of the fob to the car, rather than in response to a button press, are a close third…

    3. I suppose they couldnt break any of the glass either, plus they have hydraulic (jaws of life) equipment that will tear a car apart, sounds like they didnt even try or else this was a sensationalist story.

    4. They should have had Elon Musk on hand to effect entry:

  7. Great thought provoking article Andrew. I’ve been involved in research EV’s for the construction industry from a safety point of view. Take up hadn’t been great yet in the U.K. due mainly to cost and the charging infrastructure they require. This may change when the tax relieve on red diesel ends next April. Pointless having an EV on site if you need a diesel generator to recharge it. Other issues from the battery fires. Lithium-ion batteries are made up of thousands of cells. When they overheat they not only release toxic gases, they explode and can travel at speeds of 100mph. There’s then a danger of causing another fire elsewhere. Not good on a construction site , especially if they are using modular timber framed buildings.

  8. As most people know, we love electric cars here in Norway, and at the moment i think over 70% of all new cars sold are electric.
    According to insurance companies and the governmental statistical bureau, an electric car is a lot less likely to catch fire, and when they do, its usually not the battery pack (because it is so well protected), but interior fires.

    Every time there actually is a fire it generates a lot of attention though, so just by looking at the news it seems like it happens all the time, but thats because a regular car catching fire is a lot less newsworthy 😉

    1. @Daniel
      Yeah, but they keep upping the tax everywhere else so its not like they are going bankrupt anytime soon.
      they will probably just keep increasing the tax on gas and road tolls to compensate for a few years before they increase the VAT on electric cars.

      Most of Norway is very dependent on cars due to everyone living all over the place and the geography being very difficult for infrastructure like highways and trains, so even higher taxes on cars will surely be quite difficult to implement.
      Unfortunately, most of the politics are made in oslo, which is pretty flat and well served with public transport to the surrounding areas, and therefore extremely anti car.

  9. I would imagine that most EV fires so far have involved only one: when the proportion of EVs on the road rises, as it is mandated to do, the chance of a multi-EV fire rises considerably. Perhaps Norway has figures? While ‘controlled burn’ may be viable for the occasional one at present, a different approach may need to be developed. Arson is one example – what is the response when multiple EVs are set alight?

    Someone on DTW may be more able than I see to be to locate the data behind the UK government’s recent announcement that new buildings in England must to be equipped with EV charging from 2022. Such as standards, exemptions and so forth. Also whether the claim is correct, and they really are the first. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-to-announce-electric-vehicle-revolution

    1. No really up to date statistic, but in 2019, 2020 and the first 5 months of 2021, there were a total of 59 electric car fires in Norway compared to 2334 ICE car fires.
      i think around 15% of the car park is electric at the moment, though over 70% of all new cars sold is electric so ne number is rapidly increasing.

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