GM Battery Lab Explosion Attributed To Gases From A123 Cells

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GM Battery Lab, Warren Technical Center

GM Battery Lab, Warren Technical Center

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UPDATE, Thu, April 12, 11:15 am:

The Detroit News quotes an unnamed source this morning as saying that the battery pack being tested that caused yesterday's explosion at GM's Warren Technical Center contained lithium-ion cells from battery maker A123 Systems.

The Chevrolet Spark EV is the only GM electric vehicle known to use a lithium-ion battery pack with cells supplied by A123 Systems. The Spark EV's recent Los Angeles validation testing was the subject of aggressive GM publicity last month.

A123 Systems [NSDQ:AONE] has had a tough year, and this will not help. The company said it would recall batteries sold to five different manufacturers due to possible defects in a few lithium-ion cells.

That defect apparently caused a 2012 Fisker Karma to shut down entirely during a road test by Consumer Reports.

Late yesterday, General Motors issued a statement, summarizing the incident as follows:

An incident occurred about 8:45 a.m. Wednesday inside a test chamber at the [GM] Alternative Energy Center during extreme testing of an experimental battery. Chemical gases from the battery cells were released and ignited in the enclosed chamber. The battery itself was intact.

The battery tested and the incident have no connection with the Chevrolet Volt or any other GM production vehicle.

Employee safety is a priority at GM. Employees were evacuated from the building where the incident occurred. Five people were evaluated by medical personnel; one has been admitted to an area hospital for treatment.

The company also said that except for the battery lab itself and adjacent offices, all areas of the Alternative Energy Center in its Warren complex would be open and operating normally today.


ORIGINAL ARTICLE, Wed, Apr 11 (updated several times):

Local Detroit news is reporting an explosion and fire at the GM Technical Center battery laboratory in Warren, Michigan, at approximately 8:45 am.

Fire officials said two workers were taken to the hospital, with injuries that are not life-threatening, according to local news station WWJ.

Later reports in The Detroit News said one person was taken to the hospital and four others were being evaluated.

The explosion was attributed to a lithium-ion battery by local deputy fire chief Gary Wilkinson, who used the phrase "most likely" for the attribution.

The WWJ news report very responsibly noted that the lab stresses batteries to their limits, and that the incident does not indicate any danger to drivers or owners of electric cars.

One building, presumably the battery lab facility, has been closed at the Warren Technical Center, with all employees evacuated. The remainder of the Tech Center remains open for "business as usual," according to reports from the site.

Kevin Kelly, a GM spokesperson, told The Detroit News the company was "aware of an incident this morning" at a lab facility that "required a fire and emergency response."

He said all employees had been tracked down and accounted for. Lab personnel numbered approximately 80 people.

The battery lab, which was recently expanded, is where GM engineers test, validate, and monitor the performance of lithium-ion cells from various different manufacturers.

It is where the battery pack for the Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car was developed. That pack uses cells from Korean maker LG Chem, which were selected in a two-way competition with cells from A123 Systems.

A fire in the battery pack of a Chevy Volt that had been totaled in a NHTSA crash test caught fire last summer, three weeks after the test.

The subsequent NHTSA investigation concluded that "no discernable defect" existed, but not before GM CEO Dan Akerson was called to testify before a Congressional committee.

GM subsequently offered battery-pack modifications for roughly the first 10,000 Volts to reduce any risk, but the update was voluntary, not a recall.

UPDATE 3: By about 2 pm this afternoon, the one injured employee is described as having serious injuries including a possible concussion and "chemical burns," but is expected to make a full recovery according to a GM spokesperson.

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Comments (19)
  1. Wow, that is really bad. I hope people escape serious injury.

  2. Oh no, you know what this means, more electric car bashing by skeptics and the media (fox news). I'm glad to hear that the employees effected will be ok, but this could start another Volt fire scare, it will not be true but that didn't stop them last time.

  3. I hope all the employees are safe and not seriously damaged. These fires are not putting GM's best foot forward. Maybe they should find better qualified people, or company, to work on these batteries, and it probably wouldn't hurt for them to take some advice from a more successful electric automaker like Tesla.

  4. TESLA? You want the company whose cars "brick" and cause the owners to incur $40,000 repair bills to offer expertise? That's a good one!

  5. 1) The only case of bricking was caused by the owner of the one car that occurred in.

    2) The Roadster battery has gone down in price, it costs nowhere near 40k.

  6. Actually, various news reports have stated this has happened to several owners, not just the bitter guy who made this very public. I'll avoid whether it's the owners' faults or poor design by Tesla, but to claim it was just one owner simply is not true.

    I don't claim to know much about the cost, but the cost is almost universally stated as nearly $40k. If it's not $40k, then please show a source. Not that I can afford one, anyway, but if it's not $40k, what is it?

  7. Gee, imagine that. Someone might jump to the conclusion that li ion batteries can be dangerous. Well, considering the extraordinary lengths that EV makes have gone to to avoid explosions and fires, Id say that conclusions such as that are certainly plausible. EV advocates have to stop their knee jerk defenses of everything remotely connected with electric cars. An explosion in a facility manned by supposed battery experts doesn't lead one to believe these types of batteries aren't dangerous. Denial ruins our credibility. We are pretty sure our current batteries will be replaced by more user friendly types fairly soon, and current battery types do not allow for a competitive EV anyway. Let's all pray for a better and cheaper battery.

  8. I see new safety protocols in GM's future.

    Reminds me of when companies started making airbags. Many manufacturers blew up plants before they learned how to handle the rocket fuel that is in airbags.

    One notable exception was Morton who made airbags, but had long had a history of handling rocket fuel. They knew what they were doing.

  9. I for one want the manufactures to stress the componets to the point of failure and then figure out what went wrong to prevent that failure. This is why we have crash testing so we can learn what happens to the occupants (crash test dummies) when the vehicles collide. Whats sad here is two people were hurt. I wonder why the battery failed. Were they overcharging it? or was it damaged in anyway? Well I hope GM learns from this failure in order to make even more reliable EV's. Remember that gasoline cars are much more likely to start on fire than an EV despite what Faux News tells you.

  10. Fox has never said that EVs are more likely to catch fire than a gas car. Way to make that up.

    Why do so many people on this site who clearly don't know what actually gets said on Fox think it's ok to lie about it? Including article writers themselves.

    If you expect to attract more people to this site (and therefore to the cause of EVs), you shouldn't have this kind of paranoid anti-Fox ranting, or you're just going to turn away the millions of people who know the truth: that certain people on Fox are skeptical of EVs (unjustly), but there's no conspiracy.

    I'd hate to see this great site degenerate into a left-wing rant rag, but comments like the above accomplish just that.

  11. @Andrew: Some Fox commentators ignore facts or lie in covering plug-in cars (Volt especially) on some shows.

    Neil Cavuto & Eric Bolling are notably egregious in this regard. Two examples:
    There's more, but we stopped covering it because it got tedious.

    Recently, at least one Fox program changed its tune:

    Plenty of room f/good debate, but let's stick to FACTS, eh?

  12. I agree with the fact that certain commentators present misleading info on plug-in cars, and it really irritates me when they do it. I'm on board with the EV cause. My problem is with the idea that there's a conspiracy at Fox to kill support for electric cars. There isn't. Anyone who watches regularly sees commentators and guests stick up for the facts against the misinformation. The problem is that when people who are newly interested in EVs come here to get info and are met with anti-Fox comments that they know aren't true, those people will assume the worst about EV supporters and turn away. I don't want that to happen. This is a great site and more people should come here. But exaggerated accusations against Fox are counter-productive.

  13. @Andrew: Thanks for the courteous reply. Let me pose a little challenge: Find me clips of 10 factual, balanced analyses (even mentions) of plug-in cars anywhere on Fox News. I hope that's possible.

    But the literally DOZENS of times that Cavuto, Bolling, and others have propagated outright untruths & misleading half-truths is well documented.

    I have no idea whether Fox makes a concerted effort to denigrate plug-ins (I doubt it) or simply has lots of commentators happy to ignore facts to further their beliefs and right-wing political agendas.

    Either way, no other network has anything like Fox's record of misrepresentation on electric cars. Not one. We feel that was worth covering.

  14. Big deal, a battery catches fire in a lab during extreme testing. While reading this article (according to stats I saw last month) on average another 2 or 3 gas-powered cars have caught fire during normal use on American roads.
    Whoops, there goes another one.

  15. "Chemical gases from the battery cells were released and ignited in the enclosed chamber."

    What does this mean? I didn't think that Li-Ion batteries exchanged gases with room air. Did they deliberately puncture the cells after charging to see what would happen? Is this to simulate a "breach" caused by an automobile accident?

    And did the "deliberately" ignite these battery gases and cause injury to one of GMs workers?

  16. This is what concerns me too. It's not that a battery blew up--extreme testing should cause that sometimes--but that people were close enough to get hurt. That's more a safety procedure issue, less a battery safety issue.

  17. That explosion was Hydrogen-based. Why hydrogen out of an A123 cell? It's a LiFePO4 chemistry. I suspect this is a next-gen battery not intended for the Spark EV but for something in 2015 and beyond. Of course, that is trade-secret stuff and admitting to that means A123 shows their cards. I'd bet it is a Li-Sodium battery cell that was overcharged in a non-vented casing. Li-Sodium are touted for high-capacity and higher voltages. This is NOT (in my view) a battery for the Spark EV. They must release something to say that - otherwise, people won't buy Spark EVs thinking that they'll explode.

  18. I am working of equipment to make Li-Ion batteries and I was surprised by how volatile they are.

    1) the batteries are sealed into a foil pouch in a vacuum chamber.

    2) the vacuum chamber is inside a glove box filled with Nitrogen (no oxygen).

    3) The foil pouch is initially made over-sized and left over-sized during the first charging cycle because of volatile outgassing. The foil pouch is then reduced in size and the outgassed part of the pouch is carefully ventilated (not sure it it goes into the air or not).

    Anyway, I am not sure what gasses can come out of Li-Ion batteries, but they are sure worried about it. However, I didn't see any blast protection for the workers.

    It sure looked like a product ripe for automation.

  19. " A prototype battery for an undisclosed future vehicle was charged to 150% of capacity (not a "real world" scenario) and an external ignition source ignited gases emitted. "

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