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Research at Missouri S&T seeks to better understand electric vehicle fires

An electric vehicle charging in a parking garage on the St. Louis University campus.
Jonathan Ahl
/
St. Louis Public Radio
An electric vehicle charging in a parking garage on the St. Louis University campus. While EV fires are rare, a Missouri S&T professor wants to know as much about the risk of fire as possible as electric cars and trucks become more prevalent.

As electric vehicles and their charging stations roll out quickly across the country, a Missouri University of Science and Technology professor is leading research about the fire risks they pose.

EV fires are generally rare, but lithium-ion batteries that power the vehicles can produce fires that burn many times hotter than gasoline and can be difficult to extinguish.

That’s because they start with an uncontrolled chemical reaction inside the car battery that releases what Missouri S&T researcher Guang Xu calls simply “a huge amount of heat.” The fires continue until the reaction has completed. Even extinguished lithium-ion batteries can be prone to reigniting.

Xu, a professor of mining and nuclear engineering, said that electric vehicles are generally safe, but that there needs to be more research on what might happen as they and their chargers become more common. On Thursday, the California Air Resources Board voted to ban sales of new gas cars after 2035. California's move should reshape the U.S. car market by quickening the transition to electric vehicles, the Associated Press reports.

Updates to building code and evacuation protocols need to follow that same pace, Xu said.

“Let’s say a parking garage attached to an office building or apartment complex has electric vehicle charging stations, and there is a fire.” he said. “What are the protocols to evacuate? How do you put out that kind of fire? We don’t know, yet.”

In July 2020, an electric vehicle in a mine in Onaping, Ontario, caught fire underground. No one was hurt in that Canadian fire, though the miners, some with decades of experience, were unsure what to do.

“They knew what to do in case of a diesel fire, an oil fire, many different types of fire, but not an EV fire,” Xu said. “We need to know the risks and how to mitigate them before an incident, and not wait for a tragedy.”

Xu’s research at Missouri S&T focuses on how EV fires start while connected to a charging source, what kinds of gases they produce and how to best control such a fire.

“We want to develop preparation and mitigation standards to help EV users, firefighters and others know what to do,” Xu said.

He is sharing his data with vehicle and charger manufacturers as well as people who write building codes and develop standards for firefighters.

There is a desire for this kind of information, according to the Fire Protection Research Foundation. “Members of the emergency response community have questions regarding personal protective equipment; firefighting suppression tactics; and the best practices for overhaul and post-fire clean-up,” the organization wrote in a study looking to quantify best practices when combating an EV fire.

Xu and his colleagues held a workshop this spring at Missouri S&T to address EV fire risks. Attendees included vehicle manufacturers, industrial EV users, fire safety experts and university researchers.

He plans to make it an annual event.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

Jonathan is the Rolla correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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