Lithium Ion Batteries, a force to be reckoned with in vessel applications.


Since the beginning of boat building; designers, builders, owners and crew have always sought to do more with less. Seeking efficiencies may reduce costs, make better use of space, provide more speed and meet regulatory requirements or socially accepted organisational norms. While developed in the early part of the 1900s, the use of lithium batteries did not see much in the way of commercial or consumer applications until the 1970s. Even then, marine applications haven’t gained traction until recently, just the past three to four years.

Lithium batteries can be found in a wide range of products. This includes powering automobiles, vaping systems, computers and cell phones. The benefits include lighter materials, the ability to hold charge and recharge to greater capacities at a quicker rate than other types of batteries. Simply put, you can do more with less when it comes to weight and size. As boats are being designed and efficiencies sought, it is natural for any ship manufacturer or operator to seek technology to reduce weight and costs. As an added benefit, technology that is considered “green” assists in meeting global regulatory conditions on emissions.

Bloomberg News, citing statistics from the Maritime Battery Forum, DNV GL, reported in March 2018 that there were 185 battery powered vessels either in operation or under construction globally. The most prominent application was in ferries at 58. Given their planned and often shorter routes, ferries are prime candidates for battery power as they can be charged at destination points. In addition to the ship building advantages, the quieter nature of battery run vessels are pleasing to the fare paying public. The Norwegian ferries are leading the way in these orders. One operator in San Francisco is beginning to convert vessels and the Washington State ferries are also looking to incorporate lithium ion power in its vessels.

While a fraction of the global order book, at just 10 hulls with lithium ion or hybrid powered vessels, yachts – primarily sailing yachts, are also using lithium ion batteries to power the generators to feed vessel electronics, lighting, air conditioning systems and accessories such as ice makers and refrigeration. While the systems may not give complete power for the vessel, the cost for this is reported to be similar to that of solar panels with the ability to handle much greater loads.

There are many positives to consider with the expansion of lithium ion batteries to power vessels. So why is this order book comparatively small in the context of overall order book and conversion market? Cost is certainly a consideration. Given requirements to reduce shipping emissions set by the IMO, synthetic fuel options are certainly more attractive to the current fleet and hulls soon to be delivered. While the lithium ion technology has existed for longer than a century, it is still very much in a development curve insofar as power and charging capabilities. This does not make for an attractive alternative with the larger, long haul ships making voyages to ports that may not host the infrastructure required to service lithium ion batteries.

That said, there are safety considerations to consider. Whether traditional lead or lithium ion, batteries have been the source of many a fire on vessels of all sizes. Lithium ion batteries generate hydrogen gas. Given the low flash level of hydrogen gas, proper ventilation is paramount considering the sources of spark in vessels whether electronics or even the battery charger itself. In a worst case scenario, the batteries risk becoming unstable, venting carbon dioxide and eventually releasing pressure – in other words, an explosion. In fact, as a result of an incident aboard the MF Ytteroyningen on 10 October 2019, the Norwegian Maritime Authority issued a warning to shipowners and operators on the dangers associated with lithium ion battery systems. Not only were the perils of fire and explosion an issue, twelve firefighters were hospitalised after exposure to hazardous gases.

Lastly, on 10 September 2019, the United States Coast Guard issued a Marine Safety Information Bulletin titled “Passenger vessel compliance and operational readiness” in response to the tragic vessel fire aboard passenger vessel Conception, highlighting among other things: “Reduce potential fire hazards and consider limiting unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries”. As fire and explosions are real concerns in the usage of lithium-ion applications, marine insurers should further consider exposures in yards and during winter storage as hulls accumulate; presenting concentration of risk in a single location.

Source: Hellenic Shipping News