After Volt and Dreamliner 787 Fires, Panel Struggles With How to "Fix" Batteries
April 12, 2013 2:34 PM
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Top industry figures says there's no sure fire method of predicting internal shorts
For the last two decades demand for lithium ion batteries in mobile devices has exploded, but so did safety concerns. Apple, Inc. (
), Sony Corp. (
) and several others
I. Expert Panel -- How to Make Batteries Safer
Now it's the transportation industry that is grappling with these issues. This week a panel of experts
met at a forum
sponsored by the
U.S. National Transportation Safety Board
in a bid to answer the question of how to prevent the wave of battery fires that have swept the electric vehicle and commercial aircraft industries.
The answers were not terribly reassuring. While experts said the issue of short-circuits was known and best-practice preventive measures were included in most large battery systems, that there's no sure-fire method of protecting a battery from its own internal flaws.
And the mechanism by which short circuits start fires is still poorly understood. Laurie Florence, principal engineer at international battery safety certifier
, says that you can shoot a nail into most lithium ion batteries, triggering a short circuit, but no fire. However, more subtle internal design issues can trigger short circuits that
lead to fires.
Daniel Doughty, president of
Battery Safety Consulting
, urged the industry at the forum to embrace research into design isolated cell technology that prevents a fire in one cell from spreading to the next. He also urged industry leaders to develop better technology to diagnose and predict internal short circuits.
Battery manufacturers already rely on a cruder fault prevention technology -- additives. The liquid lithium ion fluid -- roughly 25 percent of the contents of a typical cell -- is highly flammable. Typically additives are mixed into this volatile liquid to reduce the fire risk. But these additives also frequently reduce the power capacity/delivery of the battery, hence raising costs and cutting battery life.
Janet McLaughlin, deputy director of the
U.S. Federal Aviation Administration
's hazardous materials safety programs,
, "We all know lithium batteries are hazardous materials."
On the other hand, replacing batteries also isn't cheap.
II. Battery Fires Hit Boeing, GM, Hard
Both Airbus, a subsidiary of The European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company N.V. (EADS) (
), and The Boeing Company (
), the world's top two commercial aircraft companies, initially tapped lithium ion batteries for auxiliary power systems in their new flagship aircraft, an industry first. Airbus recently dropped plans for lithium ion batteries in its upcoming A350 after
backpedalling amid fire concerns
Those concerns allude to rival Boeing's efforts, which are still forging ahead despite major setbacks.
In January the battery module in the
Dreamliner 787 caught fire in Boston
, Mass. while on the ground. Just a couple weeks later, a Dreamliner in Japan was
struck by a serious battery fire
. After the second incident Boeing
agreed to ground the Dreamliner
and search for a solution.
Boeing 787 production line [Image Source: Boeing]
Since then, Boeing has redesigned the battery module. And while
into the previous fires is still ongoing, the FAA has agreed to permit Boeing to start testing the new module.
The auto industry has also been struggling with battery issues of its own. Fisker
suffered a pair of fires last year
, although the company
insists they weren't battery related
. But General Motors Comp. (
) did trace
fires in its Chevy Volt
electric vehicle back to malfunctions,
triggering a quasi-recall
. In the aftermath of the recall GM executives were forced to
testify before Congress
. GM recently acknowledged that the
publicity from the fires hurt Volt sales
Chevrolet Volt [Source: TECHVEHI]
But again, in automotive applications automakers are struggling with the delicate game of risk regarding batteries and additives. Fewer additives might give customers more miles on a charge -- but they might also cause a fire.
III. Soft Demand Tempts Some to Cut Corners
A final issue is soft demand. The struggles of electric vehicles -- caused in part by poor battery range and public awareness of battery safety issues -- have cause the industry to badly miss sales growth predictions.
In 2002 only 800m lithium ion cells shipped. This year roughly 5.5 times that total -- 4.4b cells -- shipped. Glen Bowling, vice president of sales at Saft Specialty Battery Group, a producer of lithium ion batteries, comments to
, "The growth in the mission of lithium-ion batteries is substantial. It's a stretching of the technology boundaries and we have to be professional when we do that."
But the industry is also hurting.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
materials engineering professor
comments, "[2008-era predictions of 2011 demand] were off by more than a factor of 10. This created a great deal of stress among those who manufacture batteries.
LiIon battery-makers have been under increasing financial stress amid missed sales targets.
[Image Source: ANL]
Those miscalculations have caused manufacturers and startups to load up on
expensive lithium metal
and overproduce. Professor Chiang says there's enough idle lithium cell stock to power 400,000 LEAF EVs from Nissan Motor Comp., Ltd. (
Many companies have gone out of business.
Amid that market it may be tempting to the survivors to cut corners. Survivors are desperate that Congress will back
a fresh round of $7,500 to $10,000 USD electric vehicle tax credits
proposed by President Obama to stimulate asales.
This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled
4/12/2013 4:51:14 PM
I suspect manufacturing and ignoring certain thermodynamic principles.
4/12/2013 6:47:07 PM
I don't think anybody's "ignoring" anything.
The problem is trying to make a battery pack provide the highest performance within the smallest volume of area. If you wanted "perfect" batteries that you could guarantee 100% that they would never fail, they'd probably be twice the size and half the power. If you wanted maximum power and density, all else be damned, you could probably make the batteries be even smaller and provide even more performance - but they'd blow up all the time.
These manufacturers have to dance a delicate dance. I don't know what the actual physical problems are with the battery tech, but I imagine them running into something analagous to CPU foundries with the problem of electron migration. The smaller your processes get, the more electron migration happens. At some point, the electron migration with completely invalidate the CPU entirely. What can you do about it? Mmmm...change the laws of physics?
4/13/2013 3:47:28 PM
Tesla Motors and SpaceX are both using a battery technology that the other guys are not. They should probably give Elon Musk a call because his power-train is years ahead of the others.
It's pretty obvious now that there are battery designs that work and those that do not. Redesign your frickin batteries if they're having problems.
4/15/2013 8:39:16 AM
This should be where the free market kicks in and corrects the imbalance. Which it slowly is. Tesla are performing extremely well while competing EVs have suffered lost sales. That seems to be recovering now that the initial fire scare is over. Fisker is, quite rightly, the obvious loser so far. Given the market growth in EVs, I'm getting worried about the proposed 10k tax credit thing. The current 7.5k has done its job - expanding it doesn't seem necessary.
4/15/2013 1:39:53 PM
I don't think we should eliminate the tax credit until a mass market EV comes out. We're still 3-4 years away at the earliest.
“And I don't know why [Apple is] acting like it’s superior. I don't even get it. What are they trying to say?” -- Bill Gates on the Mac ads
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