Lithium fires burn hotter and longer. Here’s how SC is preparing for a growing battery industry.

A row of firefighters' helmets, coats, and boots in suspendered pants hang at the ready at a fire station. As South Carolina goes all in on electric vehicle and battery manufacturing, emergency responders around the state are preparing for the fire hazards associated with the emerging technology.(Getty Images)

COLUMBIA — As South Carolina goes all in on electric vehicle and battery manufacturing, emergency responders around the state are preparing for the fire hazards associated with the emerging technology that can burn in a way firefighters have never experienced.

The lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles, as well as a slew of household electronics, aren’t any more likely to catch fire. But when they do, they burn much hotter and longer than traditional, gas-powered cars.

A typical vehicle fire takes between 500 and 1,000 gallons of water to extinguish. When it comes to putting out fires involving battery-powered cars, manufacturers say it takes between 3,000 and 8,000 gallons. But some fire departments have reported using upwards of 35,000 gallons to extinguish an electric vehicle blaze.

And if you have a building full of lithium-ion battery material, the water needs multiply substantially.

This makes such fires particularly difficult to put out or even cool down. If they can’t be contained, they pose a threat to those who work at or live near a facility.

Four vehicle manufacturers across the state are going electric. And with BMW building a battery assembly plant in Woodruff, battery cell plants proposed in Piedmont, Florence and Walterboro, a pair of battery recyclers in the Midlands and Lowcountry, as well as a possible lithium processing facility in Chester, South Carolina will be awash in these major facilities within the next few years.

The fire departments that serve these communities must now get ready.

‘Being proactive’

Japan-headquartered Envision Automotive Energy Supply Co. plans to employ a total of 2,700 people and invest $3.1 billion in its Florence County plant, supplying battery cells to BMW’s Spartanburg facility.

“While it will be tremendous, it does present deep challenges,” Sam Brockington, coordinator of Florence County Fire and Rescue Services, said of AESC.

Brockington said the county has all the equipment it needs to fight a fire if one were to break out at the facility when it begins operations — the county has eight ladder trucks and 30 pumpers — but it’s short on manpower.

“The main thing you need in a large-scale event is people,” Brockington said.

The county is seeking a federal grant to hire a dozen more employees.

Less than five miles from AESC is the sprawling Buc-ee’s gas station, which boasts 100 electric vehicle charging stations. Brockington worries about what would happen if a charging vehicle were to catch fire and spread to others parked nearby.

“The good new is, I see us being proactive,” Brockington said.

Firefighter training

Lithium batteries can go into what’s called thermal runaway, a chain reaction within the battery that causes it to grow hotter and hotter until the temperature can no longer be controlled.

“A battery has everything inside it to propagate its own fire,” said William Mustain, a chemical engineering professor at the University of South Carolina’s new Carolina Institute for Battery Innovation.

The only thing responders can do is try to cool a burning battery down until it puts itself out.

The problem, Mustain said, is there are no standard practices in place for how firefighters should respond. That has resulted in firefighters going down their traditional list of tools, one after another, trying to fight these fires in every way they know how.

Approached by Columbia’s fire department, Mustain and other battery institute faculty are creating an online training course to teach firefighters battery fundamentals and what effect each of their tools will have if they try to fight a lithium-ion battery fire with it. The institute is collecting used battery packs to give to fire departments for practice.

The South Carolina Fire Academy also is in the process of developing lithium-ion fire training in the state. The training will involve teaching firefighters about the hazards — namely the high temperatures — associated with these types of fires, according to Chief Jason Pope.

Most of these fires occur when a battery cell has been physically damaged, Pope said.

For example, at General Motors’ first all-electric vehicle assembly plant in Detroit last December, a three-alarm blaze started when a forklift punctured a container of lithium-ion battery material. It filled the 4.5 million-square-foot factory with smoke, requiring an evacuation, and took seven hours to extinguish with water, foam and EV car fire blankets, which also ignited, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Closer to home, an early morning fire broke out on June 26, 2023, at a Livent Corporation lithium processing facility, in Bessemer City, North Carolina — less than 10 miles from the South Carolina state line. Smoke from the fire led to closure of a nearby road. The event was a first in the plant’s 15-year history. Officials never determined a cause.

Fire crews ultimately decided to let the flames burn out on their own, worried how the material might react if water was used, according to the Gaston Gazette.

Keeping a battery fire contained, preventing the incident from spreading and letting it burn out is part of the training at the academy, Pope said. So is how to cut into an electric vehicle to free trapped passengers.

One benefit major manufacturing facilities have over vehicle fires that take place on the roadways, Pope said, are specialized sprinkler systems that, when functioning properly, can help keep down the blaze.

Industry response

In addition to the fire departments, manufacturers also are getting involved in preparations.

Cirba Solutions, which has plans for a recycling facility in Richland County, brings first responders into its facilities for training, showing them the layout of the building and what items are stored where. The company equips its facilities with rolling stations holding fire blankets, gloves, masks and other firefighting supplies, said spokeswoman Danielle Spalding.

Cirba talks to the firefighters about lithium-ion batteries versus plain lithium versus nickel-based, all of which must be extinguished in different ways.

Outside the recycling facility, Spalding said, Cirba sends out its own specialized clean-up teams to battery fire and accident sites. And the company donates kits for transporting and recycling damaged batteries, often the source of fires reported at recycling facilities.

Whenever a battery fire takes place, Spalding said, Cirba tracks the battery involved in case it was part of a defective batch. If any other batteries that were part of that bad batch come to a Cirba facility, the company flags and treats them with extra caution.

In Colleton County, Pomega Energy Storage Technologies has leased space to begin assembling battery packs, largely to be used by utilities for solar and wind energy storage, later this year. The company eventually plans to manufacture battery cells at a site near Walterboro. CFO Jeff Stoddard said Pomega’s batteries will have a different chemical make up — lithium iron phosphate — which in the case of fire, don’t burn as hot as their lithium-ion counterparts.

People living near Scout Motors‘ new electric vehicle assembly plant in Blythewood also raised concerns over the threat of battery fires when the Volkswagen subsidiary announced it would locate in the Columbia suburb.

Part of the incentives package used to lure the automaker to Richland County includes money for upgrades to the area fire department. Scout also will have its own fire department on site.

But like most all-electric automakers, Scout will be installing pre-assembled battery packs in the vehicles it makes in Blythewood. This greatly reduces the risk, according to the company.

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