Blowing up batteries--for your safety

Lithium-ion batteries will be in cars someday, so Sandia is blowing them up now to see how tough they are.

Lithium-ion batteries. They do blow up good.

Boom! Sandia National Labs

Peter Roth at Sandia National Labs is conducting research on the durability and reliability of lithium-ion batteries, which are expected to power plug-in hybrids and electric cars in the future. Lithium-ion batteries store more energy than conventional batteries--six times as much as lead acid and two to three times as much as nickel metal hydride batteries, according to Sandia. However, lithium-ion cells can have unfortunate side effects.

Namely, an internal short circuit can lead to fire and a nasty explosion. In 2006, Sony had to conduct a multimillion-dollar battery recall because some had caught fire in notebooks. The potential damage is higher in a car because electric cars will contain thousands of cells, rather than six or nine, like a notebook. The inside of a car is also a more hostile environment than the one where you ordinarily use your notebooks.

I am the god of hell fire! Sandia National Labs

So Roth is driving nails into batteries, heating them up to extreme temperatures, overcharging them, and having other types of fun. That's Roth in the photo to the right preparing to blow up some batteries. The other photo shows the results of his research.

"We look at fundamental chemistry, wanting to discover the kinds of gases they emit when they are heated and explode," Roth said in a prepared statement. "We also build smaller prototype batteries that, once we get the chemistry right, may eventually be built full size to go into vehicles."

On a positive note, many of the latest lithium-ion batteries sold for power tools are actually quite resilient, he noted, and can withstand adverse conditions better than many other types of batteries.

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About the author

    Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.

     

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