The Freighter and the E-Car: "Judgment Came Way Too Early"

02/10/2023

Shortly after a fire breaks out on the "Fremantle Highway" car freighter off the North Sea island of Ameland at the end of July, the cause is identified. The already often heated debate about electric cars is reignited when numerous media hold one of those vehicles on board the ship responsible for the accident. What no longer seems to be of such burning interest after the attention has died down: A good eight weeks later, the theory that an electric car caused the fire is rejected.

  Professor Achim Kampker and Professor Heiner Heimes Copyright: © PEM RWTH Aachen University | projektelf

For two scientists of RWTH Aachen University, this finding comes as little surprise – because traction batteries for electric vehicles are part of their field of expertise. "The first judgment came way too early and reflexively, when no investigations had even been able to take place on the ship," says Professor Achim Kampker, founder and director of the RWTH Chair of Production Engineering of E-Mobility Components (PEM). For the co-inventor of the "StreetScooter" delivery vehicle used by Deutsche Post, this is proof of how widely myths about electric vehicles are still being propagated. According to various studies, an electric vehicle is 25 times less likely to catch fire than a car with an internal combustion engine. "In any case, the failure rate of electric vehicles is as low as 1.2 per 10,000 – compared to 7.3 fire accidents for classic internal combustion vehicles," Kampker says.

Battery fire more difficult to extinguish than gasoline fire

"Thermal runaway of lithium-ion batteries releases much less energy than a gasoline tank, but the battery fire is much more difficult to extinguish," explains Kampker's colleague and battery expert Professor Heiner Heimes, a member of the institute's management team. To counteract the danger of such a thermal runaway, active and passive safety measures are already in use, he says, so that ideally it will no longer happen that a battery cell produces more heat than it can dissipate, for example due to electrical or mechanical triggers or manufacturing defects. When a certain threshold temperature is reached, the stored energy is released inexorably in the form of heat and flammable gases. This is exactly what first reports said caused the fire on the "Fremantle Highway" freighter – but has now turned out to be highly unlikely based on the location of the fire on the ship: The electric cars were reportedly located on another deck and were largely intact.

Experts discuss all things e-mobility at 11 th EPT in Aachen

"With new technologies, research and development put a lot of emphasis on improving safety compared to the technology that is being replaced," Heimes says. At PEM's 11th "Electric Vehicle Production Days" (EPT) on October 25th and 26th, numerous players from international science and industry will therefore once again meet to exchange ideas on battery safety and recycling, electric motors and fuel cells, and to optimize the production of all e-mobility components. Registrations are open and available at ept-aachen.de.

This article originally appeared in the Handelsblatt supplement Zukunft Deutschland on October 2nd, 2023.