Ground support equipment – suppressing fire risks
How do we make airport traffic safer?
The aviation sector is experiencing unprecedented demand. With the exception of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, it has seen a sustained increase in demand, which is anticipated to continue into the foreseeable future.
With rising pressure from governments around the world, the entire sector is searching for fresh, cutting-edge approaches to reduce carbon footprints and overall environmental impact. As a result, many organisations are switching to electric as an alternative, more environmentally-friendly fuel source for all ground support vehicles and equipment.
The electric impact
To achieve ambitious sustainability targets, airports are actively embracing electric alternatives to the conventional combustion engine vehicles and machinery operating on the ground, which enable continued air operations – whether that be for transfer buses, push-back tractors or refuellers, for example. Undoubtedly, this is having an effect on the environment as a whole, but it’s also creating new fire risks that can't be properly controlled by traditional fire detection and suppression methods.
Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries power the bulk of electric vehicles (EVs) and equipment used for ground support operations. Although EVs arguably have a lower fire risk than ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles, EV fires can have much more severe consequences.
The four primary fire risks for li-ion batteries are as follows:
- When battery power is drained or charged too quickly, this is known as overcharging or undercharging.
- Mechanical impacts or failures, which can occur from incidents such as vehicle collisions.
- Heat exposure – because li-ion batteries are so sensitive, temperatures must be constantly monitored and regulated. The li-ion battery is more susceptible to fire risk if exposed to external heat sources, such as those produced from surrounding fires, or fires in other compartments of the vehicle itself.
- Production issue, which can cause particles can enter battery cells. Li-ion batteries have thin cell layers and are compact, meaning any particles, no matter how small, can harm internal components.
Each of these scenarios can cause the li-ion battery to internally short-circuit. This short-circuiting is one of the main influences for thermal runaway – a very dangerous state, where rapidly increasing battery temperatures can cause fire, toxic gas emissions (including carbon monoxide) or potentially even large explosions.
These rapid temperature increases are a crucial indicator that thermal runaway is already happening. At this point, it can be challenging to stop thermal runaway from advancing.
Li-ion batteries will release hazardous gases as a warning sign that they’re approaching thermal runaway, before temperature rise. With suitable detection and suppression methods, you may be able to detect thermal runaway at this stage – where its progression can frequently be prevented.
As traditional fire detection and suppression systems can often only detect thermal runaway by detecting quickly rising temperatures, there’s a clear need for a unique detection method. That is, one that can identify harmful gas emissions before temperatures rise.
A much bigger issue…
Due to the value of nearby equipment and aircrafts, as well as the volume of passengers passing through the airport apron at any given moment, thermal runaway provides a significantly greater concern for airports.
Frequently, ground support equipment is in use close to aircrafts, airport personnel and travellers. As a result, any fire risk is increased, as it raises the potential harm to the surrounding environment, nearby residents and valuable assets. The impact of ground support equipment fires is widely reported.
Airports have a duty to safeguard their ground support machinery, whether it’s driven by combustion or electric engines, as well as a financial need to do so (due to downtime and the costs involved).
How can airports minimise risk?
Understanding your specific risks is the first step in ensuring safety and avoiding unnecessary downtime. It’s important to take into account not only electrical equipment but all equipment and how it functions in a given context.
Understanding the various risks can help you to create a tailored fire prevention plan that successfully handles each one.
In relation to electrical equipment, you should also take into account:
- Ensuring that once equipment has been fully charged, charging points are turned off/vehicles disconnected.
- The location of charging stations, the source of these stations' electricity, and the measures used to safeguard this. The above risks will also apply to larger battery units, which store energy for individual vehicles and machinery, on an arguably greater scale.
- Protocols for isolating and quarantining damaged electric vehicles, include monitoring solutions to spot thermal runaway before it raises temperatures.
Consider your whole operation, including how your vehicles and equipment function in context, in order to reduce the fire risks at your airport. Then, build a customised protection solution that effectively tackles the relevant risks, maximising safety and minimising downtime.
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