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Mystery at Port Newark: Why Did 17 Plug-In Cars Burn?

¶Amid all the damage left in Hurricane Sandy’s wake is an automotive whodunit, or rather, what-dunit? What caused more than a million dollars-worth of plug-in hybrid vehicles, including 16 Fisker Karma luxury sedans, to catch fire Monday night at Port Newark?

¶Fisker, based in Anaheim, Calif., has had problems with vehicle fires in the past, including one incident this year that prompted the recall of more than 2,000 Karmas to replace a faulty cooling fan.

¶But the circumstances during the big storm were clearly unusual, raising the question of whether this latest incident is a sign of design flaws, of possible risks associated with plug-in vehicles generally or simply a result of the abuses wrought by extremely rare weather conditions — or some combination of the three.

¶In a separate incident during the storm, three Toyota Prius hybrids at Port Newark also were damaged by fire. “One Prius out and out burned, the others just kind of smoldered and got really hot,” Cindy Knight, a Toyota spokeswoman, said in a telephone interview on Thursday. The smoldering cars included a plug-in hybrid Prius and a conventional hybrid Prius. The car that burned was a plug-in. That’s three cars out of the 4,000 Toyotas that were at Port Newark during the storm, including more than 2,128 plug-in or hybrid models. According to Ms. Knight, the fire “likely started because saltwater got into the electrical system.”

¶“We can’t be certain exactly what happened at the port,” Russell Datz, a Fisker spokesman, said in a telephone interview. “But we think being submerged in 13 feet of saltwater had something to do with it.” The company said the cars were not charging at the time of the fire and there were no injuries.

¶Based on photographs of the scene obtained by the blog Jalopnik, Fisker’s cars were parked fairly close together, so whatever the initial cause, a fire in one car could quickly spread to others. The cars are made of aluminum, which has a lower melting point than steel, and experts said this would likely contribute to the destruction seen in the photographs. And for any modern cars loaded with electronic components, exposure to saltwater can be a problem because it is highly corrosive and conductive.

¶“Picture a charged AA battery,” suggested Daniel Abraham, a lithium-ion battery expert and chemical scientist at Argonne National Laboratory. “If you connect the positive and negative terminals with a wire, it will short the battery and generate tremendous heat in the process.”

Seawater can act like that wire. “The conductivity of saltwater is much, much higher than that of freshwater because of all the salt,” Mr. Abraham said. Salts dissolved in water break into positively and negatively charged ions, which then act as conductors. So if seawater connects both the positive and negative electrical terminals of a battery, it will tend to short.
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