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."
Chuck, I found myself debating myself just reading the article. I would fully expect, as the experts note, that there would be controlled explosions during the testing of experimental technology like EV batteries. You figure, in the lab, they would be contained, managed, not a biggie. But reading further into your article and hearing what the town Mayor is reporting is a totally different story. Injured people, blown-out doors--those don't sound like effects from a controlled experiment. That sounds like serious stuff that could make people leery about the batteries for a long time.
Beth I share your thoughts. I'm now wondering what Hollywood and the Media will do with this information. We have some nice examples: 1979 movie The China Syndrome had quite an effect on public perception of Nuclear Energy, the 2010 CSI Episode "Fracked" did quite a bit to fuel rumors about the ills of Fracking, the 1992 TV movie Dead Ahead: The Exxon Valdez Disaster dramatized the dangers of petroleum use, and there is a rumored movie in production based on a New York Times article from December 25, 2010 titled Deepwater Horizon's Final Hours. I'm all for disseminating factual information about the development of new technologies, but I'm curious how this event will shape public perception of battery research.
Well, they were doing a test where they were trying to get the battery to fail. It just failed in a more "explosive" manner than they expected. I think (and forgive me for using this word) that this is being overblown a bit. If you left your Clorox bottle at home uncapped for a week, with all the windows and doors tightly sealed, you'd have some very sick occupants. That doesn't mean Clorox is something that shouldn't be used or sold.
Beth, it does seem like they are trying gloss over a serious failure. Certainly, gasoline is not exactly a stable compound, and we drive around every day with tens of gallons of the stuff being pumped at high pressure just inches away from us, so I'm not really worried about an increased risk. Just the same, the quotes read like the Three Mile Island report and I half expect that they will soon be saying they experienced "rapid oxidation" rather than a fire.
I glad I ran across this article, I am in the process of transplanting the "guts" of a wrecked 2006 Toyota Prius in to a 1992 Lexus es 300 Donner car (engine and drive train removed of course) I would like to add three more batteries in parallel to the existing battery to extend the mileage before the gas engine kicks in and starts the charging process, I can only imagine the damage it could do to my vehicle or a individual if there was an explosions or fire.
I am ambivalent regarding this as well. In other blogs I have brought up safety only to be told in so many words that I was being overcautious. Yet nobody brings hard data as to the safety standards that batteries are tested to in vehicle use when they do so, they just say that their EV works great. I still haven't had anyone tell me if the volatility increases with density...has anyone checked out the videos that are available online as to what happens when a lithium ion battery is thrown into a barbecue grill (analogous to an EV and an ICE collison where there is a fire). It's not very encouraging.
I am not as worried about the exploding battery issue as I am with the dangers involved to the poor mechanic who has to work on these things. The high voltage can kill! Plus, the computer goes through a systems check periodically and activates, amongst many other things, the brakes. If you are working on the brakes at the time, you might just lose a finger! Mechanic friends of mine are scared of the electric cars. You can't always get a factory tech, so the small-town mechanic might be the highest risk group of all- not Alaskan crab fisherman dangerous- but significant nonetheless.
Unfortunately, people are notoriously bad at assessing risk, even when given accurate information. Stoking fear by sensationalizing an event doesn't help the situation. To be fair, driving a car is probably the single most dangerous part of anybody's day. Yet, despite the 40,000 deaths a year from this activity (in the U.S.) you don't hear any public outcry.
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