On a grand scale

Iain Cox, Chair of Business Sprinkler Alliance, says in any large, complex building it is paramount that fire safety is not taken lightly to ensure the safety and protection of the occupiers, but especially so for gigafactories.

Coined by Elon Musk to describe his first electric vehicle (EV) battery production plant, the term ‘gigafactory’ has become generic for any largescale facility that produces lithium batteries for cars on a massive scale. These buildings are cropping up across the globe, and gigafactory has even been used to describe any expansive, high volume manufacturing plant. But as the scale, innovation and modernity of these buildings evolves, so should fire safety. What measures can these businesses undertake as part of their drive to be resilient and protected?

Tesla’s own gigafactory is one of the largest buildings on earth by footprint at a staggering four million square feet. It makes one fact startlingly clear: fire safety needs to be front and centre of the design. In the UK we have seen plans for at least three of these facilities. Britishvolt, and then Recharge Industries, is set to build a gigaplant in Northumberland capable of manufacturing enough batteries for 300,000 EVs each year and is equivalent in size to 50 football pitches. Reports of design changes to the £300m building and a halt to construction suggested that the creation of a complex building on this scale is not without its challenges, and that was before Britishvolt went into administration.

It is often the case that when new industrial and commercial buildings are built it can be without the knowledge of what they were going to be used for – they are built speculatively. Gigafactories pose a differing challenge as the batteries they are set to produce are evolving. The building designers are therefore given the task of creating a structure that can accommodate such innovation and the fire loads within.

Decision-makers often consider the risk of fire is catered for by following building regulations when envisioning their new building. In fact, an industrial building the size of 50 football pitches is outside the scope of that guidance as it is a unique and complex building. We may see similarities in the labels we are giving to parts of these largescale buildings with terms such as warehouse, industrial process or factory, but they are not a common building. This means taking a different approach to defining and engineering the fire safety and protection of such large facilities.

It may be a surprise to many but a key fire protection component in current gigafactories is automatic fire sprinklers. Some may question whether it is appropriate to use sprinklers. In August 2018, a Tesla gigafactory in Nevada suffered limited damage when a fire broke out in the production area late in the evening. The installed sprinklers suppressed the fire, which was finally extinguished by the fire service. The facility returned to production the next morning, demonstrating the effectiveness of sprinkler systems.

As the UK plans its own gigafactories and mega-warehouses, the performance of these buildings over time and the impact of fire and its consequences must be considered. Now is the time to think of fire protection on a grand scale.

For more, visit business-sprinkler-alliance.org

‘Fire contained at Tesla gigafactory in Nevada’ in Reuters reut.rs/47uM6vZ

Image credit | Alamy



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