Explosion!: Lithium Battery Safety Still A Problem

explosionflickrAs recently as August, the largest lithium battery recycler in North America — Toxco — snagged a $9.5 million grant from the Department of Energy to build out battery recycling capacity in Ohio and pledged to provide “end of life management” for advanced vehicle batteries “in a safe and environmentally sound manner.” But this weekend multiple explosions and a major fire at the company’s Trail, British Columbia recycling facility can be fairly called bad advertising for that business.

The event remains under investigation, but Toxco believes it was caused by an internal short in one of the batteries in storage at the Trail facility, which handled batteries ranging from smaller cell phone batteries up to some weighing 1.4kg (about 3 lbs.), Canada’s Globe and Mail reports. This adds fresh fuel to smoldering fears about the safety of lithium-ion batteries (you might recall the reports and photos of laptop fires caused by overheated lithium batteries in years past) for use in the upcoming generation of plug-in vehicles, as well as for recycling and disposal of the devices.

Part of the danger with lithium stems from the fact that it reacts violently with water — that’s why the more than 50 firefighters called to the Toxco blaze let the chemical burn out. According to Canada’s Globe and Mail, Toxco took several measures to keep the volatile battery chemical in check, cooling batteries to nearly 200 degrees below 0 degrees Celsius, and storing them in 45-gallon drums on wooden palettes within “earth-covered concrete bunkers.”

These days a slew of venture-backed battery companies see opportunity where lithium-ion batteries fall short, and they’re building part of their business case around promises to deliver safer and more stable batteries for electric vehicles, and at higher energy densities (in general, the higher the energy density of lithium-ion batteries, the more volatile the technology).

The solution proposed by Berkeley, Calif.-based Seeo, for example, comes in the form of a nano-structured solid-state battery based on a polymer electrolyte, rather than the liquid electrolyte that has been the “weak link,” according to founder and technology director Mohit Singh, and is the cause of much of the safety concerns. The startup also claims its battery can operate at a much higher temperature compared with currently available lithium-ion batteries — opening the possibility for use in more rugged, outdoor applications, such as attached to a solar system.

Planar Energy Devices, meanwhile, is developing large-format and thin-film batteries with a “laminated safety separator,” which Planar says protects cells from thermal abuse and will not melt and short with high heat like conventional separators providing a thermal shutdown mechanism.

We’ll likely see increased competition in the battery recycling industry itself in coming years, too, as more advanced vehicle batteries come onto the market. After 8 years or so on the road, a typical lithium-ion battery will exhaust its useful life in plug-in vehicles, but much of its value as an energy storage device remains. The Renault-Nissan Alliance, making some of the biggest bets in the industry on electric vehicles, thinks capturing that value through recycling and reuse could be a key to reducing the price tag for plug-in cars. Taking a lesson from Toxco, though, it seems making that process safer will be another important step.

Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.