By Richard Belfield
Cleve Hill has the potential to be one of the greatest environmental disasters ever. Lithium ion battery technology has never been tested on this scale. No one can say, for certain, that it is safe. All anyone knows for sure is that li-ion batteries spontaneously burst into flames and when they do, they produce copious volumes of one of the world’s most toxic gases, hydrogen fluoride as well as tiny amounts of an even more lethal gas, phosphoryl fluoride.
Every year, these batteries are being used to store ever increasing amounts of energy. The technology is relatively cheap, which is why manufacturers love it, but the science is undeniable. The greater the number of batteries, the greater the risk of fire and explosion.
The track record of lithium ion batteries is not good.
Three years ago, Samsung had to recall 2.5 million phones because of the risk of spontaneous combustion. HP and Compaq recalled their laptops because of fire hazards and last month, some versions of MacBook Pro laptops were banned from airplanes. A hydrogen fluoride gas explosion in South Korea, killed five and hospitalized 3000. In 2013, a Boeing 787 had to make an emergency landing in Japan after the crew noticed an unusual smell caused by overheating of the li-ion battery during takeoff. The heat melted the surrounding insulation material and caused the battery to melt and send high currents through the system. There have been two similar incidents of battery melt down, one in Japan and one in Boston, USA. There have been numerous near misses at factories all over the world where hydrogen fluoride is used.
Hydrogen Fluoride release in South Korea
Since 1992, the US Federal Aviation Administration, which monitors aircraft safety has noted 265 incidents involving smoke, fire or explosion at airports or on planes involving lithium batteries carried as cargo or baggage. The FAA believes the number is much higher as many incidents are unreported. The FAA has also identified three major incidents of fires on planes, where lithium battery cargo shipments were implicated as the source.
See footage of a robot in a California lab bursting into flames. What is most frightening here is that even after being extinguished, the flames come back again. The volume of poisonous gas produced is frightening.
NASA lithium ion battery explosion
The two guiding principles for building large scale lithium ion battery farms are that they should be in a very dry area, ideally desert and far away from human populations. Cleve Hill is flood plain next to a school and close to Faversham in one direction and Canterbury in the other. As planning applications go, it does not get much more stupid than this.
The Faversham Eye has talked to experts in the USA where there have been multiple leaks of hydrogen fluoride from industrial plants, mostly small.
As far as Cleve Hill is concerned there are two possible scenarios. Neither is very encouraging. On a clear day, the intense heat could produce a plume of poisonous gas rising upwards, going wherever the wind takes it and then dropping it. If it travels far enough and at great enough height then, hopefully, it will be diluted enough not to kill anyone, though the long term health effects are unknown. In American communities where this has happened, residents were still reporting health problems two years later.
The nightmare scenario is this: Cleve Hill suffers from extremes of weather from heavy sea mists, water logging and occasionally in summer, extreme heat. The prevailing winds blow inland. Given the right weather conditions, a fire could instantly produce a huge aerosol of low-lying gas, which will go whichever way the wind blows, killing and maiming every living thing in its way. If you want to see what that looks like, watch the footage of an experiment in the Nevada desert. The man behind the experiment, Ron Koopman told the Eye: “The assumptions we had about hydrogen fluoride gas turned out to be wrong. It moved as fast as the wind speed, much quicker than we thought.”
In the 1986 Nevada desert experiment, 3700 kilos of hydrogen fluoride gas was released in two minutes. Two miles downwind the cloud was twice the lethal concentration. This was a relatively small release. Even a small fire at Cleve Hill will produce significantly higher volumes of toxic gas than this. By the time local firefighters arrive, it will already be too late. The experience of America is that these fires can burn for days – and that is because of a well documented process called thermal runaway, which means the fire is highly contagious and it spreads very quickly.
A recent experiment using a large number of batteries showed that there is a repeating cycle of battery expansion, which shoots out jet flames. This causes stable combustion, which produces more battery expansion and the cycle repeats itself. The only way to extinguish a major fire is with water. Although water will cool the batteries and eventually put the fire out, the impact of water on burning battery produces huge amounts of hydrogen fluoride. Once the gas is cooled down, the more likely it is to cling to the ground. If the fire takes hold and takes more than an hour to extinguish, then ever greater areas of Kent will be affected. The only thing that will govern how many die will be the wind direction.
In Texas, when there was a leak the local fire brigade evacuated everyone, which turned out to be a big mistake. 700 people ended up in hospital. The only alternative is to stay indoors and hope there is time to seal every door and window with gaffer tape. Given how close the local school is to the site, they will not have the time to do this.
Currently, the developers have tried to ring fence their liability into a single company, which will presumably go bust if there is a fire. The question then is who will insure this project? It is hard to see how planning permission could be given unless there was a major insurance policy in place. For the underwriters, the sums are brutal. The dead are relatively cheap, the sick and the permanently maimed are the big cost. At very low levels, hydrogen fluoride attacks the eyes and the lungs leaving its victims permanently blinded, requiring a lifetime of care. Li-ion battery fires also produce a wide range of carcinogens, which will hang around this area of Kent for years.
In Texas, it was easy to see where the gas had been as the vegetation was scorched. North Kent has some of the most fertile farming land in Britain. It is not just lives at risk here, but livelihoods as well.
Ron Koopman told the Faversham Eye, “So far we have been very lucky. At some point, we are going to run out of luck.”
Richard Belfield is an investigative journalist, best selling author and award winning film maker. He has written for the Sunday Times and Private Eye and made documentaries for every major UK TV channel as well as Discovery, National Geographic and Al Jazeera. He lives just outside Faversham.