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Advanced Materials
Battelle help with a study to determine the safety of electric vehicles

Why Electric-Powered Vehicle Fires Make Headlines

Posted by Battelle Insider on Jul 25, 2018

A car on fire during rush-hour traffic might only make the local traffic report if it’s a slow news day. But a fire in an electric-powered vehicle often makes national news. 

“People think of electric vehicles as unsafe because they are new, and if something goes wrong, it draws attention,” said Steve Risser, a Senior Research Leader at Battelle. 

Gasoline-powered vehicles use a lead acid battery (needed to start the car), which has been the case for well over 100 years.                                             

“We’ve had 130 years to master the engineering of a gasoline-powered vehicle. But we’re still in the early years for electric vehicles,” said Steve. 

A lithium ion (Li-ion) battery packs more energy into a smaller space than a traditional battery, which means it packs a bigger punch if something goes wrong.

A lead acid battery won’t normally burn because the electrolyte (the component that enables the flow of electrical charge between the cathode and anode) is water. In lithium ion, it’s an organic solvent.

“That’s the biggest concern. In something like a car, you have many of these cells stacked together. If one cell fails, there is a chance it can cause failure in neighboring cells. It just cascades,” said Steve. 

Battelle worked on a project with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to evaluate the safety of electric vehicles.

The main conclusion from that study: the propensity and severity of fires and explosions from the accidental ignition of flammable electrolytic solvents used in Li-ion battery systems are anticipated to be somewhat comparable to or perhaps slightly less than those for gasoline or diesel vehicular fuels.

The other conclusion is that Li-ion battery safety can be managed effectively, although substantial research and development and codes and standards development is needed. But once we’ve had 130 years to master the engineering of vehicles with lithium ion batteries, that likely won’t be an issue. 

Read additional coverage about this topic and Steve’s thoughts in this CNN story or this Consumer Reports story.

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Photo: battelle employee using a virtual workboard