Source: Feuerwehr Bocholt

What should I do when my electric car goes up in flames?

Naturally, you should call the fire brigade. However, fighting an electric-vehicle blaze is a challenge even for them because the lithium-ion batteries are just as likely to continue burning merrily despite having water sprayed over them. Now, a trio of textile companies have found an innovative solution to this ‘burning’ problem.

It is often said that Germany is no longer such an innovative force and is pursuing trends such as electric mobility with the handbrake on. But is that really true? Not according to Bloomberg, which put Germany in first place on its innovation index for 2020 – ahead of South Korea and Singapore. Thus, when it comes to electric mobility, it is perhaps necessary to look closer to discover the innovativeness still thriving in Germany. For example, in Bocholt, a town in the northwest of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, where Ibena Textilwerke GmbH is based. The special-textile manufacturer makes protective clothing for fire brigades, emergency services and the police. Now, the company has just added to its portfolio of developments a textile innovation designed to solve one of the most urgent problems when dealing with burning electric vehicles.

Electric vehicles burn differently
Important to know: electric vehicles burn differently to diesel and petrol cars. Although, contrary to popular belief, they do not catch fire more often than conventional vehicles, the way they burn represents a challenge for the fire brigade. And this is primarily due to the lithium-ion batteries, the cells of which are responsible for the chemical process that generates electricity to drive the vehicle. In the case of a fire, these cells are fatally liable to a domino effect: if a lithium-ion cell is heated by fire, it can happen that this cell heats up the neighbouring cells, which in turn heat up … Experts call this ‘thermal runaway’, a process that, in the worst case, can cause the whole battery to explode. Summarising crash tests, Germany’s ADAC, Europe’s biggest automobile club, said, “Damage to the batteries represents the most critical case when it comes to accidents (involving electric vehicles).”

Full immersion for safety’s sake
Naturally, the fire brigade use water or foam to extinguish fires in electric or hybrid vehicles. The problem with this is that, due to the special construction of the lithium-ion batteries, foam and water cannot always reach the seat of the fire, i.e., the individual cells. “In the worst case, it is possible for fires to reignite in electric vehicles although they appear to have been extinguished”, says Ibena CEO Ralph Beckmann. Accordingly, many fire brigades move electric vehicles to a special quarantine compound and monitor them in case fire should break out again for up to 48 hours. Or they make absolutely sure by sinking the whole vehicle in a container full of water. “Naturally, it is then a complete write-off”, says Beckmann.

Instead of total immersion: the innovative protective blanket is fixed around the damaged vehicle with Velcro and zip fasteners / Source: Ibena

Instead of total immersion: the innovative protective blanket is fixed around the damaged vehicle with Velcro and zip fasteners / Source: Ibena

Like a blanket for e-cars
To avoid this and to make it easier for the fire brigade to deal with burning electrical vehicles, the textile experts of Ibena joined forces with fire-protection consultants Gelkoh (Hamm) and PPE Factory, a prefabricator for special textiles from the Netherlands. Their aim was to develop an easily storable, dry, textile-based solution for recovering and isolating hybrid and electric vehicles. The result is a recovery system with the resounding name LiBa®-Rescue. Like a blanket that one snuggles down under on a cold winter’s night, the product is used to fully enclose the burning e vehicle. According to Beckmann, two firemen require no more than three minutes for this.

Safely covered: two firefighters should need no more than three minutes to pack the damaged electric vehicle into the textile recovery system / Source: Gehlko

Safely covered: two firefighters should need no more than three minutes to pack the damaged electric vehicle into the textile recovery system / Source: Gehlko

The recovery system consists of a fabric made using various Nomex® fibres (polyamide fibres from Dupont). “We took advantage of the different properties of the fibres”, explains Ralph Beckmann. The non-inflammable composite textile has a self-extinguishing effect in that it hinders the supply of oxygen and thus stops the fire feeding on it. Additionally, a layer of aramid fibres prevents battery or vehicle parts becoming dangerous missiles in the event of an explosion. In the middle of the fabric is a nonwoven filter layer, which is intended to absorb any corrosive liquid acid, which can leak from lithium batteries.

Complementary areas of expertise
“The enclosed recovery system represents a completely new approach”, says Beckmann about the innovation, which also shows that it is good when different areas of (textile) expertise complement each other. While fabric manufacturer Ibena developed the material and tested it in collaboration with the Bocholt’s fire brigade, PPE Factory adapted it for various e-vehicles. Gelkoh is responsible for sales and service of the finished product, which is already in use. Ibena CEO Beckmann reports that they have already received numerous inquiries from vehicle manufacturers, fire brigades and interior ministries of several EU countries. “We are working on further applications in the electric-vehicle segment. However, I cannot comment any further on that”, says Beckmann.

Incidentally, Bocholt, the birthplace of the textile recovery system, has been twinned with the Chinese city of Wuxi since 2003. This modern industrial metropolis in the southeast of China is, like Bocholt, a traditional textile-manufacturing location and, thanks to its economic vitality and innovativeness, also known as ‘Little Shanghai’. Sometimes, one must simply look a little closer to discover (textile) innovations hidden in current mega trends.

Ronny Eckert

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