Battery experts were unsurprised by reports Wednesday of a lithium-ion battery fire at a General Motors lab. At the same time, experts reached by Design News cautioned the public not to assume that the new breed of EV batteries is explosive. Warren Mayor Jim Fouts told Reuters that an eight-inch-thick door had been blown out. Five people were injured, and 80 were evacuated from the facility after the fire.
"An incident occurred about 8:45 a.m. Wednesday inside a test chamber at the General Motors Alternative Energy Center during extreme testing of an experimental battery," GM said. "Chemical gases from the battery cells were released and ignited in an enclosed chamber. The battery itself was intact." The automaker emphasized that the batteries are experimental and are not used on the Chevy Volt or any other production vehicle.
It isn't clear whether the doors opened automatically in the presence of a gas release or were blown open by a high-pressure gas buildup. Photos published by WDIV-TV in Detroit show the doors open and unburned. This might indicate they operated as designed.
Design News reached out to knowledgeable engineers to get their take on the incident. Industry experts said it would be uncharacteristic for a lithium-ion battery to explode with such force, even during extreme testing.
"One has to be very careful with the word 'explosion,'" Elton Cairns, battery expert and professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, told us. "There's a popular concept of an explosion, and there's a technical meaning. I seriously doubt that what occurred at GM was an explosion."