Hidden danger in electric vehicle fires

Posted by
On August 9, 2022

two firefighters battling vehicle fire

Photo by Dominik Sostmann, Unsplash.

Like a fire in a wall, fires in electric vehicle (EV) batteries burn unseen. Firefighters can squelch the visible flames in an EV fire, but chemicals inside the battery continue to burn because firefighters cannot reach the source. Researchers at Missouri S&T are working with mine operators and firefighting agencies to plan for and mitigate EV fire risks.

“EV battery fires start with an uncontrolled chemical reaction inside the battery that releases a huge amount of heat and continues until the reaction has completed,” says Dr. Guang Xu, associate professor of mining engineering. “Also, a chemical fire releases more toxic gases than a gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicle fire.”

When parked, EVs are typically connected to a power source, which can start a fire, Xu says. A faulty part could also start a fire, like spontaneous combustion in cell phones.

Xu recently led a workshop at Missouri S&T to address EV fire risks. Attendees included vehicle manufacturers, industrial EV users, fire safety experts and university researchers. Participants visited Xu’s lab on fire safety and learned more about S&T’s research involving battery materials and performance as well as mining emergency rescue.

Wprkshop participants in two rows, one behind the other, in a photo with a banner reading "BEV Fire Safety Workshop" in green letter on a white background.
Missouri S&T hosted an battery-electric-vehicle fire safety workshop for manufacturers and users, fire safety experts, and university researchers.

Xu says that mine operators are particularly concerned about fire because of mining’s growing use of EVs in everything from development to production. Miners could become trapped underground by an EV fire, which produces toxic amounts of hydrofluoric acid that can cause lung injury, pulmonary edema or death.

“Last year, workers at a mine in the U.S. had to flee an EV fire,” says Xu. “Everyone escaped safely, but the mine had to close for a week at great economic cost.”

The fire risk transcends mining to city bus fleets, ships that carry EVs, airports and parking garages. Xu says there is currently no standard procedure to calculate and prepare for risk. His research evaluates risk preparation to minimize human danger and property damage.

Xu is working with other researchers at Missouri S&T. Dr. Jonathan Kimball, chair of electrical and computer engineering at Missouri S&T, is developing fast-charging EV batteries. Dr. Jonghyun Park, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, focuses on battery power efficiency and safety.

“The chemistries used for making batteries are combustible and bring a new source of fire risks,” Xu says. “We want to develop preparation and mitigation standards to help EV users, firefighters and others know what to do.”

About Missouri University of Science and Technology

Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) is a STEM-focused research university of over 7,200 students. Part of the four-campus University of Missouri System and located in Rolla, Missouri, Missouri S&T offers 101 degrees in 40 areas of study and is among the nation’s top 10 universities for return on investment, according to Business Insider. S&T also is home to the Kummer Institute, made possible by a $300 million gift from Fred and June Kummer. For more information about Missouri S&T, visit www.mst.edu.

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Posted by

On August 9, 2022.

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One thought on “Hidden danger in electric vehicle fires”

  • David G. Sizemore says:

    Tremendous work and importance. Doesn’t this suggest that EVs for all may not be the final answer.
    What might happen when EV1 collides with EV2 and they in turn run into something else?
    There are many intermediate solutions that must occur in proper sequence before we phase out other means of transportation.

    Naturally, MO S&T is an ideal place to work on that rather massive and important quest!
    Stay tuned.