What Does the Boeing Dreamliner Li-Ion Battery Fire Mean for EVs?
Japan’s GS Yuasa Corporation, which made the ill-fated lithium-ion batteries that caught fire in a Boeing 787 Dreamliner earlier this month, is also a major supplier of packs for electric cars. It has joint ventures with both Honda and Mitsubishi, and its cells are also in some French Peugeot/Citroen (PSA) cars.
Last year, GS Yuasa opened a factory in Shiga Prefecture capable of supplying 50,000 Mitsubishi i-MiEVs, and as PlugInCars.com reported it is ramping up production as “one of Honda’s key lithium-ion battery suppliers” to supply 15 million cells annually (triple Honda’s previous capacity).
Honda's "Very Safe" Batteries
Honda’s joint-venture plant with GS Yuasa is called Blue Energy. Yuuji Fujiki, chief engineer for Honda’a IMA hybrid system, said in 2011 that its li-ion batteries are “very safe” and operate at relatively low temperatures. Even if a needle is stuck into the battery, he said, “a fire is not going to break out.”
Honda is standing by its batteries. Company spokesman Chris Naughton told PlugInCars.com, "Our battery is completely different, and not based on the battery [in the Boeing planes]. We have subjected our battery to rigorous testing (including extensive crash testing and piercing it with a long metal rod) to ensure it remains safe and stable."
Jack Nerad, an analyst for Kelley Blue Book, describes the Boeing battery incidents as "certainly disturbing in the context of an aircraft, perhaps a little less so in auto applications."
Investigations are ongoing in the Boeing fire, plus a second incident in which a plane was forced to make an emergency landing in Japan after a smoke detector went off and a pack was found to be charred. Overcharging has been ruled out as a cause. Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration has recently visited GS Yuasa in Kyoto, and company officials say they’re cooperating with the probe.
The Wall Street Journal reported, "Regulators haven't yet indicated whether they think the cause of the Dreamliner problems lies with the battery itself or with another piece of the complex electrical system of which it is a part. A flaw within the batteries could save U.S.-based Boeing from a time-consuming and expensive redesign of the systems."
Earlier this month, GS Yuasa said it had received Ministry of Economy subsidies to allow a rapid lithium-ion ramp-up to become “one of the largest manufacturers in the world.” GS Yuasa owns 51 percent of the Kyoto plant, and Honda 49 percent.
What Lies Ahead
It’s not too early to speculate what the airline mishaps might mean for an EV industry heavily dependent on lithium-ion technology. These batteries tend to run warm, as everyone knows. Matthew Wald reports in the New York Times, “The electrolyte in a lithium-ion battery includes hydrocarbons. So it will burn or at least undergo a chemical reaction somewhere short of fire that generates heat and smoke….If the lithium-ion battery is small, then it has a big surface area compared with the volume of its ingredients, and it can radiate heat well. If it is large, or if it is a pack of many cells, a cooling system has to be installed or a path set up for air to flow through.”
Many EVs have such cooling systems, but the Nissan LEAF is among many that don’t. Li-ion batteries have a checkered history when it comes to fire problems. In 2006, several computer makers, including IBM, Dell and Apple, recalled laptop computers because of fires attributed to Sony li-ion batteries.
Last year, GM’s sale of Chevy Volts was briefly set back by reports of lithium-ion packs catching fire following government crash tests. That fire took place weeks after the test, and occurred only after a heavily damaged battery pack was left in the car and suspended upside down. But there were also garage fires involving electric cars, though none clearly implicated the EV.
Big Advantages to Li-Ion
Lithium-ion batteries in airplanes offer weight savings, rapid charging and very efficient energy storage and delivery, the same basic advantages for electric cars. Boeing’s use of the batteries was approved in 2007, with stringent safety precautions part of the deal.
Nobody has been hurt in the Boeing battery incidents, or in the auto-related fires, either. It’s unlikely that we’ll see a wholesale retreat from li-ion because it’s by far the most efficient battery technology in the world today. But we may see a concerted effort to make the batteries as safe as they possibly can be.
In addition, li-ion batteries are likely to become universal in cars of all types. Alex Molinaroli of Johnson Controls said at the Detroit Auto Show earlier this month that conventional cars are likely to start using 48-volt lithium-ion batteries (in conjunction with auxiliary 12-volt batteries) to handle increased electric loads (from advanced infotainment, among other things) and to enable the start-stop systems that are now very common in Europe.
“We could see that as early as 2015, and we have a lot of development contracts out of Europe in 2016 and 2017,” Molinaroli said. “Europe has very aggressive fuel standards.”
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