Determining and Mitigating the toxic effect of lithium-ion batteries in the marine environment

Dr Richard Wills, Prof Andrew Cruden, Prof Andy Cundy, Dr Chris Hauton

Studies by Wills and Cruden with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) highlighted the rapidly growing interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from the maritime fleet. Maritime transport emits around 940 million tonnes of CO2 annually (2.5% global GHG emissions). The International Maritime Organisation targeted GHG emissions reduction by at least 50 %, with the European Commission’s European Green Deal targeting 90 % by 2050. Achieving such emission reductions requires increasing electrification of propulsion and power systems, including hybridisation and use of large electric energy storage systems, typically, lithium-ion batteries.

As recent maritime accidents highlight e.g. the X-Press Pearl sinking near Columbo, Sri Lanka (June 2021), the release of hazardous chemicals can have catastrophic impact on the local marine environment. In addition to cell materials including copper and organic electrolytes, gasses released during lithium-ion battery degradation comprise COx, NOx, HCl, HF and hydrocarbons such as benzene. In thermal runaway cells typically release between 2-3 litres gas per Ah of battery capacity. As modern vessels are demonstrating battery systems up to ~7.5 MWh capacity, with larger systems being developed, there is a critical requirement to investigate the short and long term marine toxicology impact of modern lithium-based battery chemistries.



The methodology to be employed will include:

  1. Lifecycle analysis of lithium-ion cells (constituent elements, processes, hazard analysis etc.);
  2. Review of current and planned maritime electric propulsion systems, particularly large battery systems;
  3. Assessment of cell corrosion, contaminant leaching or outgassing processes, and potential for contaminant breakdown, sediment sequestration or wider dispersion, in seawater (using microcosm studies);
  4. Environmental assessment of mixed organic and inorganic species including toxicology analysis (e.g. LC50 ) at environmentally representative temperatures and pressures;
  5. Appropriate facilities at both Engineering (Highfield) and NOC (e.g. high-pressure aquaria) will be utilized where necessary.


The student will ultimately integrate the analysis from two initially distinct perspectives, to recommend and report on the potential toxicology and issues of large lithium-ion battery system use within the marine and maritime fields;

  1. Mechanical and electrochemical engineering assessment of battery packs exposed to saltwater environments.
  2. Toxicology and environmental assessment of large lithium-ion based battery systems entering the marine ecosystem.


University of Southampton

The INSPIRE DTP programme provides comprehensive personal and professional development training alongside extensive opportunities for students to expand their multi-disciplinary outlook through interactions with a wide network of academic, research and industrial/policy partners. The student will be registered at the University of Southampton and hosted at Dept. of Mechanical Engineering, Highfield. Specific training will include:

  1. Manufacturing, characterizing and testing lithium-ion cells using the electrochemical engineering laboratory facilities (pouch and coin cell rigs, battery analysers, voltammetric and galvanostatic cycling);
  2. Chemical analysis techniques for inorganic and organic contaminants present in lithium ion cells (via ICPMS, GC-MS, TOF-MS and other techniques)
  3. Materials analysis (including of corrosion products) via XRD, SEM, and scanning XRF.
  4. Techniques and assessment procedures for determining lethal and sub-lethal marine toxicology of lithium-ion cells.
  5. Transferable skills such as presentation of data to varied audiences (conference posters, presentations and proceedings), technical writing (publications) and industry engagement.


Eligibility & Funding Details: 

Please see for details.

Background Reading: 
  1. R.Wills, A.Cruden, ‘Lithium-ion battery Technical Support’, TCA 3/7/lithium, Jan 2021, Maritime and Coastguard Agency
  2. R.Wills, A.Cruden, ‘Electric Vessel’, WP8A – Battery Powered Concept, Mar 2021, Maritime and Coastguard Agency
  3. Brown A., Thatje S., Hauton, C. (2017) The effects of temperature and hydrostatic pressure on metal toxicity: Insights into toxicity in the deep sea. Environmental Science and Technology 51: 10222–10231. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.7b02988.