The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has launched an extended investigation into any possible fire risk associated with the lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles. The $8.75 million study will last through 2014 and will specifically focus on whether or not the cells can catch fire while being charged at home or when in an accident. Automotive News reports that the study was spurred by a recall initiated by computer maker Dell for potentially faulty laptop cells. In certain rare circumstances, the Sony-manufactured cells could overheat and cause a fire.

As Automotive News points out, most electric vehicle batteries are only in danger of overheating during an over-charge situation.

Despite the fact that the vast majority of hybrids on the road today use a nickel-metal hydride battery, the study will focus solely on the danger posed by lithium-ion technology. That's because those cells are forecasted to power up to 70 percent of all hybrids and EVs on the road within the next 10 years.


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  • 28 Comments
      Dam plm
      • 3 Years Ago
      Great! Another useless study coming from our taxes @ $8.75 million!! What is wrong with these people?!
      P
      • 3 Years Ago
      Don't think this is no small matter. I brought a manufacturer's soon to be released EV home for a test and it instantly overloaded my 70 year old garage's electrical system. Smoke, melting, the works. They aren't for everyone and they DO require a bit of home upgrade. This study is not just about the batteries, it's about the different kinds of people plugging them in to different kinds of electrical systems too. Money well spent, I say.
      2 Wheeled Menace
      • 3 Years Ago
      All the information is already available... But let's spend $8.75 million anyway, ya?
      hudkina
      • 3 Years Ago
      Interesting that Autoblog chose the Volt over the Leaf for this particular story...
        BavidDritton
        • 3 Years Ago
        @hudkina
        Especially since the Leaf uses a passive cooling system on their battery, whereas the Volt is liquid cooled.
        Jac Zobel de Ayala
        • 3 Years Ago
        @hudkina
        Leaf is still yet to prove itself when it comes to combustion. As for the Volt...?
      lne937s
      • 3 Years Ago
      I'll guarantee the fire risk is less than that of gasoline. Virtually everyone has a lithium ion battery on them right now in their cell phone, blackberry, etc.-- not many are worried about catching fire. I think the larges fire risk batteries pose is having high voltages near combustible gasoline in hybrids.
        Brian K
        • 3 Years Ago
        @lne937s
        The difference is that gasoline just sits there, in your gas tank. The problem with the batteries comes when you start pumping to much voltage into them when re-charging them, thus overcharging them, and then they can catch fire or explode. You HAVE to charge your volt, and if something malfunctions in the charging circuit you can be in for a world of hurt.
          lne937s
          • 3 Years Ago
          @Brian K
          Gasoline only just sits there if you are not driving your car. If you are, it is, by purpose, burning.
      mirthbuster
      • 3 Years Ago
      Actually, the reference to the Volt is spot on. It has one of the largest Lithium-ion battery yet in the public's hands, and has already been involved in one house fire (although it may or may not have been the cause). Lithium-ion batteries are NOT water-based electrolyte, the do contain flammable organic solvents. They can throw a tantrum if they are not treated properly, and can go into thermal runaway if they get too hot - either from an internal fault or from extrernal sources. And once the meltdown starts, you cannot easily put it out. The fire department will just stand by and watch. You can put out the flames, but the reaction is still going on inside. With the Volt that burned, it re-ignited a day or two later. After 15+ years of development, laptop batteries are still having recalls and fires. Not often, but pretty exciting when they do. Are automotive lithium-ions going to magically be better? There are 6-9 cells in a laptop; the Tesla roadster has about 6800. Put your laptop battery in the oven and heat it to 300 deg and watch the fun. With cell chemistries being guarded jealously and the technology constantly changing, nobody really knows what is going to happen with these things out in the field. And the point that P made about house wiring is a good. Is your garage wired for 220V 70amps? The research NHTSA is embarking on is valuable stuff, and money well spent. We need to know!
        lne937s
        • 3 Years Ago
        @mirthbuster
        You are fundamentally wrong on this. Here is the article where BYD's CEO drinks the water-based electrolyte. http://money.cnn.com/2009/04/13/technology/gunther_electric.fortune/index.htm Organic solvents tend to be composed of molecular bonds and are therefore poor electrolyte bases. The only organic compounds in a battery electrolyte are, sometimes, Lithium Carbonate, which is a salt that is not flammable. Now thermal runaway can lead to extreme temperatures that can ignite things like some metals in the batteries, or the plastic speparator sheets. But there is not an organic solvent electrolyte base to any current lithium battery.
          mirthbuster
          • 3 Years Ago
          @lne937s
          Yep, believe what you want, but I think you need to do a little more homework. I think you will find much more than that inside a lithium-ion battery. The following videos: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gcd34tt8YPU http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJCZ4ayioCU don't look like non-flammable stuff to me. The 18650 cylindrical cells used in laptops (and the Tesla) can go off like torches. Tesla has built in an elaborate cooling and protection system into their propulsion packs, but systems invariable fail under some conditions. Like nuclear reactors and tsunamis. My point is just that the research being proposed is a good idea. There is a lot of confusion and misinformation. We need to know.
          lne937s
          • 3 Years Ago
          @lne937s
          I never said that some batteries were not flamable. However, claiming that they use an organic solvent as an electrolyte is patently false and shows a fundamental lack of understanding of how lithium batteries work.
          mirthbuster
          • 3 Years Ago
          @lne937s
          I guess Wikipedia is wrong as well. Check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lithium-ion_battery. To quote: The electrolyte is typically a mixture of organic carbonates such as ethylene carbonate or diethyl carbonate containing complexes of lithium ions.[14] These non-aqueous electrolytes generally use non-coordinating anion salts such as lithium hexafluorophosphate (LiPF6), lithium hexafluoroarsenate monohydrate (LiAsF6), lithium perchlorate (LiClO4), lithium tetrafluoroborate (LiBF4), and lithium triflate (LiCF3SO3). Sounds pretty yummy to me!
          mirthbuster
          • 3 Years Ago
          @lne937s
          Whoa, I just now noticed that you have been saying "lithium battery," not lithium-ion battery. Whole different animal. Lithium batteries are non-rechargeable, like the button cells in watches or some AA and AAA batteries, and often use lithium metal anodes. Entirely different internals. They are not what this whole blog is about, nor are they what the government is proposing investigating. If what you meant was lithium-ion, then I stand by my earlier comments.
      crzydavy
      • 3 Years Ago
      A picture of a volt? Of course. When its a good story we show the leaf or the outdated prius, bad story volt. gotcha.
      Doug
      • 3 Years Ago
      Where's the $8.75M study into fire risks from gasoline?
      Lothar
      • 3 Years Ago
      Would this just be a job for the Underwriters Labritories with out costing that much? They're already setup for that type of testing.
      steelechris
      • 3 Years Ago
      Where have I seen that picture before? Oh that's right, http://www.autoblog.com/2011/06/08/mit-students-develop-liquid-fuel-for-electric-cars?icid=sphere_searchsphere_web That was 2 days ago guys...
        methos1999
        • 3 Years Ago
        @steelechris
        yes, and like the article 2 days ago, has very little to do with the article (except that the volt uses Li-ion)
        SloopJohnB
        • 3 Years Ago
        @steelechris
        The pic was irrelevant then as now...the pic is of a Volt (Nimh?), not a car being loaded with a vaporware charged-electric-fluid.
      mirthbuster
      • 3 Years Ago
      Check out http://boronextrication.com/files/2010/11/2011-Chevrolet-Volt-Emergency-Response-Guide_ERG.pdf It is an incident response guide from GM for the Volt. Page 8 - incident (fire?) while plugged in Page 25 - flammable electrolyte Page 25 - refers to MSDS Also look at: http://www.enersys.com/pdfs/msds/english/MSDS%20853028%20High%20Energy%20Lithium%20Ion%20Battery.pdf or http://www.hp.com/hpinfo/globalcitizenship/environment/productdata/pdf/ba_lgcli-ion2400_us_eng_v1.pdf These are Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for two lithium-ion batteries. Not the Volt's battery, but could be typical. Organic electrolytes. I especially like the warning on the second one that they can explode in a fire and release Hydrogen Flouride, a particularly nasty bit of gas. Still don't think we need to better understand what's in these things and how they are going to react in an "incident?" As I said before, we need to be smart. $9M is well spent if it makes the technology safer for everybody.
      Bassracerx
      • 3 Years Ago
      woot tax dollars at work!
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