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Expert Recommendations for How to Extinguish Electric Vehicle Fires

Expert Recommendations for How to Extinguish Electric Vehicle Fires

While moving toward electric vehicles (EVs) is crucial for mitigating climate change, some people are still hesitant to make the switch to EVs because of battery fires. EV battery fires can be catastrophic and difficult for firefighters to contain, even though they are less common than internal combustion engine or hybrid vehicle fires. Still, as electric cars become increasingly common, it is important to understand the tools and strategies for responding to and ultimately preventing electric vehicle fires.

First responders are adopting new tools to fight EV fires, while automakers are installing new safety features in EV batteries to reduce the risk of fire. However, firefighters need specialized training to effectively tackle EV fires if they occur. Organizations like the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Fire Prevention Association provide resources and training courses tailored to these new requirements.

Developing a safer alternative to lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries is the key to a future where EV fires are completely out of the ordinary. A comprehensive guide to managing electric car fires will help consumers and firefighters transition safely to an EV-powered society.

Can You Put Water on an Electric Car Fire?

Although dousing batteries with water is sometimes not enough to extinguish an EV fire, it remains the method that most experts recommend for extinguishing flames caused by batteries in thermal runaway. The key lies in understanding how water prevents EV fires through cooling and containment as well as what limitations it faces.

How Water Helps

Cooling Effect

Because battery fires are chemical in nature and do not require atmospheric oxygen to burn, extinguishing these fires requires reducing pack temperatures in order to deescalate the thermal runaway process. Water is the most effective readily-available medium for cooling the battery and surrounding materials.

Preventing Spread

By cooling the battery pack and surrounding area, water can slow the thermal runaway process as well as prevent fire from spreading to other parts of the vehicle or nearby structures. EV fires are often characterized by jetting flames, so the fire can spread to a wide area in a matter of seconds.

Limitations of Water

Large Quantities Needed

Because EV fires burn much hotter than normal car fires and can’t be considered extinguished until the thermal runaway process ends, firefighters often need tens of thousands of gallons of water to overcome the high temperatures. A continuous and heavy flow of water is usually necessary to bring an EV battery fire under control. Firefighters may have a hard time securing a suitable water supply, especially along highways and outside of urbanized areas.

Electrical Risk

The U.S. Fire Administration warns that electric vehicle fires pose a danger of electric shock up to 400 volts. Water conducts electricity, increasing this risk. This is particularly a concern in the early stages of a fire when the battery may still be at high voltage.

Reaching the Source of the Fire

EV battery fires can start deep within the battery pack, which for most electric vehicles is surrounded by protective metal casings at the bottom of the car. This makes it difficult for water to reach the source of the fire. While water can cool the exterior, it might not be effective in slowing the reactions taking place inside individual battery cells.

Other Methods for Dealing with Electric Vehicle Fires

Depending on the severity of an electric car fire, some experts suggest that first responders may try to remove the battery from an EV and isolate it until the flames are extinguished. Because EV batteries are often located at the bottom of the vehicle, removal may not be a safe (or even feasible) option. Instead, firefighters use might use specialized tools and tactics to reach the flames.

In many cases, first responders isolate the vehicle and let the fire burn out. This may be appropriate in some settings such as the side of the road, but in parking garages or other enclosed areas letting it burn has dangerous implications.

Tools for Fighting EV Fires

Specialized Hoses

Companies are developing hoses designed to reach battery packs and improve the effectiveness of available water. Special features include high-pressure nozzles that pierce battery packs.

Electric Car Fire Blankets

Made of non-reactive materials such as graphite, quartz, and silica polymers, these specialized blankets cover an entire EV. They are designed for quick deployment, so first responders can rapidly contain a vehicle on fire and prevent flames from spreading.

Chemical Extinguishing Agents

Dry powders and foams have proven effective at extinguishing Li-ion battery fires, and researchers are continuing to develop more solutions. However, these dry agents are expensive and not consistently useful. They may also react with water or other agents to worsen conditions, so firefighters need to exercise caution before deploying chemical extinguishers. Many are also potential sources of PFAS contamination should they absorb into nearby soil.

Fire Safety Features in EV Batteries

Gas Detection and Venting Systems

Gas detection systems within a battery pack constantly monitor for the presence of gases such as hydrogen, which can be released during a thermal runaway event in the battery. If gas and heat are generated, venting systems are designed to release excess pressure to prevent the battery from rupturing.

Built-In Extinguisher Systems

Some EV batteries have internal extinguisher mechanisms. A dry extinguishing agent is released within an overheating battery pack to prevent fire. Batteries can also be designed with access points for firefighters to deliver water or extinguishers directly to the source of thermal runaway.

Emergency Disconnect Systems

In case of an accident or other emergency situation, these systems allow first responders to safely disconnect EV batteries, potentially preventing combustion and electrocution if it becomes necessary to cut into the car’s frame.

Fire-Resistant Materials and Design

Certain EV battery components are made with fire-resistant materials, such as aerogels and coatings, to minimize the chance of fire spreading within a battery pack. Most EVs also have compartments designed to contain and isolate fires that start within a cell.

The Need for Specialized Training

Because EV battery fires behave differently than combustion engine fires, firefighters cannot rely on their usual methods and need specialized approaches. Organizations are providing online resources about proper firefighting techniques for EV fires. The U.S. Fire Administration outlines best practices for first responders in case an electric car catches fire, while the NFPA offers training courses for firefighters.

The NFPA also maintains a collection of emergency response guides from alternative-fuel vehicle manufacturers. These guides include information on how to fight EV fires and hybrid fires for specific car models.

Safer Alternatives to the Lithium-Ion EV Battery

Lithium-ion battery chemistry is uniquely capable of causing fires stemming from thermal runaway. Adopting safer, more advanced battery technologies for EVs can prevent EV fires altogether. Scientists have developed several new solutions, though these are in varying stages of development and may not be ready for mass production.

Solid-State Lithium-Ion Batteries

Instead of a flammable liquid electrolyte, solid-state batteries use a solid electrolyte to reduce the risk of fires caused by thermal runaway. When a solid-state battery experiences an internal short circuit or a malfunction, the heat generated is less likely to escalate rapidly due to improved heat dissipation.

The most promising solid-state battery chemistries have been difficult to scale up for mass production at an affordable price point. Developers need a cost-effective means of manufacturing these batteries before they can be used commercially. And while solid-state batteries may be less prone to thermal runaway, they may continue to pose risks if cells are punctured or damaged.

Sodium-Ion Batteries

Sodium-ion batteries are less of a fire risk than Li-ion batteries because the lower electrochemical potential of sodium-ion is less likely to cause short-circuiting. The electrolytes used for some (but not all) sodium-ion batteries are also more stable than the flammable electrolytes in Li-ion batteries.

Unfortunately, sodium-ion batteries generally have trouble maintaining stable performance over repeated charge and discharge cycles. With these constraints their suitability for electric vehicles is currently limited.

AlsymTM Batteries

Rather than using a flammable liquid electrolyte, Alsym batteries use water as their primary solvent for a high-performance solution to EV battery fire hazards. Our battery also uses readily available, non-flammable materials like manganese and metal oxides, which offer high performance at lower cost and risk than Li-ion.

The Future of Electric Vehicle Fire Safety

Managing EV battery fires requires a balanced approach that integrates both traditional and innovative firefighting methods. Water remains a key tool for cooling and controlling these fires, despite its limitations and the need for large quantities. Emerging technologies and specialized training are critical for enhancing safety and effectiveness in firefighting efforts.

Progress towards an EV-powered future requires ensuring public safety. Replacing flammable lithium-ion EV batteries with non-flammable technology is the most effective way to prevent fire accidents from occurring. Learn more about how Alsym’s revolutionary technology can provide a safer, low-cost, and high-performing battery solution for electric vehicles.

Resources for first responders dealing with EV battery fires