But conventional lithium-ion batteries can only pack enough power to move small ships like the Yara Birkeland over short distances. If we want to electrify the world’s largest cargo ships, we’re going to need some better batteries.
Their reliance on toxic, flammable materials means the smallest defect can result in exploding gadgets .A team of researchers led by physicists at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory believed a safer battery was possible, and for the past five years they have been developing a lithium-ion battery that’s seemingly immune to failure.
Building battery-powered ships comes with two big problems. The first is that conventional lithium-ion batteries pose safety risks because they use liquid electrolytes to carry lithium ions between the electrodes. If the components in a battery degrade, this can cause the cell to rapidly heat up and fail, a process known as thermal runaway. The battery’s heat can lead to a cascade of failures in nearby batteries. If these batteries release their chemicals as they fail, all it takes is one battery to catch on fire and cause a large explosion. That would be bad anywhere, but it’s particularly bad at sea where there are millions of dollars of cargo on the line and limited escape routes for crew.
Last year, a small fire in the battery room of a hybrid electric ferry in Norway resulted in an explosion. The ferry operator was able to evacuate passengers and crew to land before the explosion, but a similar event on a cargo ship in the middle of the ocean could be catastrophic.SPBES, a Canadian energy technology company, is working to reduce the risk of electric vessels by designing marine energy systems that are resistant to thermal runaway. The company’s energy system, which is currently installed on roughly 20 ferries and tugboats around the world, uses lithium nickel manganese cobalt or NMC batteries. This is the same conventional lithium-ion chemistry you’ll find in most consumer electronics or electric vehicles, which have had their fair share of thermal runaway problems.