Special Reports

EV battery fires keep motor industry guessing



As Kenya and the world gear up for the 2035 electric mobility transition that has seen European carmakers ease the manufacturing of fuel-powered automobiles, safety concerns for drivers and other road users continue to rise.

The largest economies are rapidly transitioning vehicle sales away from gasoline and diesel internal combustion engines (ICE) to battery-powered electric vehicles.

One of the biggest concerns associated with electric vehicles is their battery pack potentially catching fire, leading to devastating consequences to people and property.

Some global automakers have taken flak with scathing media headlines over reported battery fires. Manufacturers such as Tesla, Chevrolet, Hyundai, and Ford have found themselves on the spot. The lithium batteries used have posed a threat to drivers and road users by catching fire.

Lithium-ion and lithium-metal cells are known to undergo a process called thermal runaway during failure.

Thermal runaway results in a rapid increase in battery cell temperature and pressure, accompanied by the release of flammable gas.

These batteries are safe during normal use, but present a fire risk when over-charged, short-circuited, submerged in water or damaged.

However, players in the Kenyan e-mobility sector say there is no cause for alarm.

"Our model is set up such that we minimise the risk from fires using our swapping cabinets, since we use the cabinets and not charging from home; we can automatically disconnect the batteries when they are fully charged to avoid the risks of overcharging which is the leading causes for the fires," said Jeremy Kimbo, the ecosystem manager at Arc Ride, an electric battery swapping company.

"Also each cabinet has canisters so if the temperature sensor is activated the canister will be released to put out the fire in the cabinets, the battery management system also checks the temperature of each cell so if there's an issue with one of the cells in the batteries it will automatically cut off," he adds.

Lithium ion phosphate batteries are less prone to combustion and thermal runaway, making them safer for home use and have a longer life span as opposed to lithium-ion batteries.

While lithium-ion batteries are supercharged, they are highly unstable in high temperature environments.

The latest National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) report shows that EV prices are dropping and “therefore there is an accelerating adoption that will make EVs reach a price parity with internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles before 2025.”

EV company Roam's chief marketing officer Albin Wilson says they have "safety triggers if something were to go wrong with the batteries, which means we have temperature control, current control, extended life testing over time to know how a battery will perform over time".

Research by the National Fire Prevention Association concluded that firefighters at the test site found that they needed to flow large amounts of water on the batteries, because fire kept flaring up even after it appeared to be extinguished.

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