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