As electric cars gain traction, spotlight on battery fire safety

2022-04-22 22:42:04 By : Ms. Nicole Fu

Flames that burn hot and fast are top of mind among car consumers lately. 

"There's a whole slew of issues that come with electric car fires," battalion chief Michael Magda of the Livonia Fire Department said recently. "With internal combustion engines, those fires are not caused by gasoline. They're usually caused by an electrical failure that heated up, melted something and started the fire. But in an electric vehicle, those metals have a 'thermal runaway' — they combust and spread through the battery tray quickly."

The key to safety is containing the fire and containing the heat. 

This isn't just about the $1.9 billion recall this year of 2017-22 Chevy Bolts for defective batteries that have led to 13 confirmed car fires and many parking garages banning Bolts from entry in various parts of the country.

This isn't just about a safety crackdown this year by the Chinese government that explicitly requires car battery systems "to not catch fire or explode within five minutes after the battery cell thermally loses control, to reserve a safe escape time for occupants."

Consumers in China, which are expected to make up more than half of a $500 billion electric car market by 2024, struggle with air pollution. And the government is creating incentives designed to spur design, production and adoption of zero-emission, all-electric vehicles. China is now establishing tough regulations on all-electric vehicles. 

Meanwhile, carmakers are trying to figure out how to meet stringent new requirements involving electrical safety, alarm signals, collision protection and flame retardants. 

Now a global company with a team in Wixom is answering the call.

If adopted, it could avert a future battery crisis and potentially save lives.

Imagine an aluminum tray the size of a twin bed mattress. That tray and its cover form a box that holds a battery module and, inside the module, battery cells. These components provide energy that makes the vehicle go.

But if the battery malfunctions, aluminum conducts energy.

The combination can help fuel a fire. 

When there's a battery malfunction, chemists and engineers calls it a "thermal event." A thermal event inevitably leads to flames burning out or control — or "thermal runaway."

Because this chemical-fueled, super-hot fire can burn quickly through aluminum, a company that used to be GE Plastics has created a prototype plastic tray with a plastic cover that can withstand temperatures as hot as lava.

Tests show the plastic can withstand 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes.

"People will think thermoplastic burns like a candle or melts but we have developed a new thermoplastic that does not burn, does not melt and self extinguishes,"  said Dave Sullivan, electrification and engineering market developer at SABIC, a corporation based in Saudi Arabia with offices around the world.

"Our chemists have developed the unique formulation that doesn't compromise strength, reliability or safety. These new materials are the first that have been put into production in China, where they have the toughest regulations for electric vehicle safety."

This innovative design is led by an automotive team from SABIC, which is working with engineers in metro Detroit, Germany, Netherlands, China, France, Korea and Japan. 

The leaders on their project are battery experts who have worked with NASA, the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration andthe Environmental Protection Agency.

"The new regulations in China really threw a curveball at the industry," Sullivan said. "When this was introduced by the Chinese government there were no materials to deliver what the regulation required."

His group is currently in talks with automakers foreign and domestic about developing a protective box that could reduce vehicle costs and vehicle weight and increase safety.

The lighter the car, the less energy it requires. The less energy it requires, the farther it can go on a battery charge. It's a snowball effect. The big win is the safety component.

"Here's the deal: Everything has been metal so far. And everyone is trying to take the cost out of electric cars," said longtime industry observer John McElroy of Northville, host of the "Autoline After Hours" podcast and webcast.

Currently, SABIC supplies Honda with a flame-resistant polypropylene battery pack cover for its vehicles sold in China to protect batteries. It provides a fire barrier between the battery cells and the vehicle cabin.

This new initiative — the giant plastic battery box — builds on that technology. It is brand new and being developed as we speak. The soonest it could be purchased for use would be 2022 but more likely 2024. Automakers foreign and domestic are evaluating whether this is worth adoption. 

To test the science, SABIC purchased a Volkswagen all-electric ID.4 compact SUV to tear apart the battery pack, weigh and analyze all components, and engineer a plastic battery box to go into the vehicle as a proof of concept.

"This is meant to show that we can do this because everybody says we can't," Sullivan said, noting that discussions are underway with several automakers doing their own analysis on the plastics materials and technology now.

"Nobody has ever made a part this big out of thermoplastic in a vehicle," he said. "We are not only having to completely rethink how thermoplastic parts are made but we're also having to take into account fire safety and constraints of meeting global regulations and consumer expectations."

Now the company is developing new manufacturing methods for this part.

Their chemists and product engineers have experience.

The $50 billion company makes, basically, everything you touch. Only $2 billion of its business is automotive. The rest ranges from petrochemicals you'd find in house paint and laundry detergent to windshield washer fluid, plastic straws, clear sneeze guards in restaurants and athletic clothing.

This latest endeavor in the automotive space is part of an overall trend, Sullivan said.

Headlights used to be made from glass and now they're polycarbonate plastic made by SABIC. Fuel tanks, once made of steel, are made of plastic. Bumpers, too.

"Bulletproof glass and bulletproof vests aren't made from aluminum or steel," Sullivan noted. And the original battery packs designed in the GM EV1 were made of plastic.

"Somehow we forgot everything that was learned 25 years ago," he said. "Glass-filled polypropylene was used on the GM EV1 and it’s back now with a new and improved chemistry that helps resist intense heat and fire."

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Most electric vehicles sold today in the U.S. and Europe lack fire protection from a thermal event. Fast-charging can stress vehicles. Adding fire-protective material to aluminum or steel battery packs or modules simply adds cost and weight, Sullivan said.

"A battery fire will reach in excess of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. It will melt anything in its path except for our material," he said. "Our material is being used for structural supports behind instrument panels and to make tailgates in vehicles today. It’s up to the task. It’s also easily recyclable and has a lower carbon footprint than aluminum."

The plastics company is starting the design phase for the Volkswagen ID.4 component.

"We will use this project to build a full flame-retardant plastic battery pack and put it into the ID.4 we purchased to prove to the entire industry that thermoplastics are up to the challenge," Sullivan said. "Safety is critical and any thermal event for an electric vehicle could hinder the massive investments being made globally by the automakers. Think of this as a metaphorical seatbelt for the battery pack. You hope you never have to use it but you feel safer knowing it’s there."

A spokesman for Volkswagen declined to comment on the project.

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When auto industry analysts heard about the plastic battery box project, they expressed skepticism. But when they learned the identity of the players involved, the tone changed.

Knowing the reputation of SABIC, he said, "I would certainly be more inclined to believe they've got something legit as opposed to some startup that doesn't have any experience and is faking it until they make it," said Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst atGuidehouse Insights, a market intelligence firm based in Washington, D.C.. "These guys are more likely to have something real."

Edwin Pope, IHS Markit principal analyst, said the idea of a plastic box that protects the battery is "a welcome innovation in terms of light-weighting and it could definitely help in safety as well."

This material polypropylene is already common in vehicles, he said. "There's this weird scenario with strength and plastics and how you built out the fibers. In our forecasting, the majority of the battery box itself is predicted to be aluminum. You could save 30% of the weight of the battery box by switching to polymer. There's a lot of safety advantages for a battery box that's polymer-based." 

Industry analysts noted that the U.S. trails when it comes to safety regulation of the fast-growing industry. And design plays a key role, they said.

The battery enclosure is one of the most complex subsystems in the all-electric vehicle today, said Adam Halsband, managing director of engineering at Forward Engineering North America in Royal Oak,a global design and engineering company that works with industry to develop new products. "It takes millions of dollars to design, develop and validate new products. Lots of people are going after the battery enclosure."

The proactive approach of SABIC ripping apart a Volkswagen to prove it works "is bold," Halsband said. "Being so brazen as to think you are going to reengineer and leverage the power of your own material to give a better solution? That's pushing all the chips in. That's unique."

SABIC, which stands for Saudi Basic Industries Corporation, is a subsidiary of the state-owned petroleum and natural gas company Aramco. It has developed a relationship with Detroit over the years and worked to diversify its portfolio.

"Anything that can provide vehicle occupants with precious seconds to escape a car fire is worthy of significant exploration," said Jason Levine, executive director for the Center of Automotive Safety in Washington, D.C. "But now is the optimal moment to minimize potential risk for these sorts of events in EVs."

Levine expressed disappointment that federal regulators have done little to establish safety enforcement guidelines. He noted that General Motors, Kia and Hyundai have recalled vehicles after a series of fires but Tesla has chosen not todo so. 

Now is the time to take steps to instill confidence, Levine said.

In January, Chinese media reported a Tesla Model 3 sedan burst into flames as it entered a Shanghai parking garage and burned so hot it left a charred metal shell, according to a story and photos in the Xinmin Evening News. An investigation showed something damaged the undercarriage and battery, reported.

Tesla had previously issued an over-the-air update to cap voltage and limit charging speed in an attempt to address the fire issue. In May, Reuters reported that Tesla stepped up its government affairs team in China to focus on regulators. 

This month, Tesla reported record profits directly linked to its success in China. 

Sandy Munro, an automotive engineer and a consultant on the SABIC project, runs Munro & Associates, a company in Auburn Hills that NASA once called an innovation factory. The place is a combination of car parts and engineering and science — like a cool field trip for science nerds.

"The plastic idea, using a composite plastic with glass, made a lot more sense," he said. "Got it in at about half the weight of what aluminum would have been. So, half the weight equates to more mileage."

At this point, automakers need to speed up their decisions to accommodate manufacturing demand that far exceeds their early planning, Munro said.

"Major automakers didn’t really take this seriously. Now they’ve got to try and take it seriously because the crossover is coming much, much faster than they thought," said Munro, who spent a decade at Ford. "The 12-year-old kid of today doesn’t want to have a stinky internal combustion engine. They don’t like the smell of gas. They don’t like the idea they’re polluting the planet. They don’t want to be like their parents. That’s where the big auto companies really dropped the ball. They didn’t talk to the children. ... They’re going to create the future. We’re not."

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The auto industry knows how to keep people safe today with internal combustion vehicles, Sullivan said. "The electric vehicle market is the equivalent of the wild, wild West. Innovation is happening faster than regulation. Some automakers want to lead in safety and that's where we want to be." 

More:A simple cardboard box design is saving the auto industry millions: 'It's amazing'

Contact Phoebe Wall Howard: 313-618-1034 or . Follow her on Twitter @phoebesaid . Read more on Ford and sign up for our autos newsletter .