Australia is “not prepared” for the risk posed by lithium-ion batteries — used in electric scooters, bikes and cars — which have been linked to hundreds of fires across the country, a firefighters’ union has warned.

More than 450 fires in Australia have been linked to the batteries over the past 18 months.

Just over two weeks ago, David Owen’s house at Broadbeach Waters on the Gold Coast was destroyed by a fire, which he said started in his garage where he stored an e-scooter.

Mr Owen said he heard “a pop” and saw “a very small flame but a lot of black smoke” coming from the garage.

“[I] opened the door, squirted the fire extinguisher and it exploded,” he said.

A Queensland Fire and Emergency Services spokesperson said investigations had indicated a failure of an e-scooter battery caused the fire.

Investigations into what caused the battery to fail are ongoing.

“I’d never seen anything like it. The scariest thing was the speed of it,” Mr Owen said.

‘All of these are avoidable’

Electrochemistry professor Paul Christensen, from Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, started researching lithium-ion batteries in the 1980s and has consulted UK and Australian fire services.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big, big fan of lithium-ion batteries,” he said.

“But I believe they’ve penetrated far faster at all levels of our society than our understanding of the risks.

“What people had reported as being smoke was actually vapour cloud vented by the lithium-ion batteries, which is explosive as well as toxic.

“It’s actually been an understated hazard.”

Professor Christensen said over-charging, over-heating, physical damage or even defects in the manufacturing process, could all cause a lithium-ion battery to ignite.

“If that vapour cloud ignites immediately you get long, rocket like flames, 1,000 degrees centigrade,” he said.

“If it doesn’t ignite immediately and the vapour saturates the surroundings, then you can actually get a vapour cloud explosion.”

Firefighters ‘worried’ says union

The United Firefighters Union of Queensland’s general secretary, John Oliver, said there had been 27 house fires linked to electric vehicles so far this financial year.

“We’re not prepared for this because we’re going to get more,” he said.

“This isn’t a normal fire … firies are worried about it.”

r Oliver said lithium-ion batteries in cars particularly created a “new layer of speed and haste”.

“They’re compartmented with these batteries in a sealed unit making them hard to get to,” he said.

“Petrol cars are a lot easier to put out.”

Mr Oliver said: “No-one’s really getting into that space to say, ‘Right, how do we deal with that properly?”’

“If they go off in that [car park] basement, if the system goes off and it ventilates those toxic gases, where does it ventilate them to? Does it go out to the street where people are standing?

“These new technologies and systems for charging are being retro-fitted into buildings that never contemplated this type of vehicle, and we need to be very careful.”

Acting Queensland Fire and Emergency Services Minister Mark Furner said QFES had “clear safety messaging in relation to lithium-ion batteries (LIB) and electric vehicles on their webpages”.

“[QFES] continues to closely monitor local and international incidents involving LIB while turning to scientific research both locally and abroad to help better respond to fires of this nature,” he said.

“We welcome the opportunity to work with the federal government and other states in developing guidelines for LIB.”

Australia ’10 years behind’

President of the Unit Owners Association of Queensland and member of the Australian Electric Vehicle Association, Mike Murray, said electric cars presented a design challenge.

“How do you fairly allocate the charging infrastructure?” he asked.

“Does everyone put in their own and have it all hard-wired back into their own meter — probably not.

“We might have one or two DC fast chargers.”

But he said home owners needed to safely manage lithium-ion batteries.

“Any lithium-ion battery can combust if it’s not treated properly, or managed properly” he said.

“What nearly all modern electric vehicles have is very competent battery management systems.

“The very early electric [cars] didn’t have it and none of the e-scooters have it — that’s where the risk lies.”

Call for education

Professor Christensen said electric car fires represented a “tiny percentage of fires and explosions compared to internal combustion engines,” but remained challenging.

“They can re-ignite hours, days or even weeks later,” he said.

“[If] they’ve put the fire out and then it re-ignites in a recovery yard and causes death or injury or damage, then where does the legal responsibility lie?”

Professor Christensen said a government-led education campaign was needed.

“Do not charge your electric-bike or e-scooter indoors under any circumstances whatsoever,” he said.

“Do not charge them when you’re out, do not charge them when you’re asleep … do not charge them where, in any way, they impede your escape.”

A Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) report into the risks and regulations associated with lithium-ion batteries is expected in mid-2023.

Extracted in full from: Australia ‘not prepared’ for fire risk of lithium-ion batteries used in e-scooters, bikes, cars, say firefighters – ABC News