At approximately 8:45 this morning, residents of the Detroit suburb of Warren, Mich. heard the sound of an explosion coming from the nearby General Motors Technical Center.
A fire then resulted at the Alternative Energy Center located on the technical center campus. Local news stations reported one person was chemically burned, taken to the hospital, and will be held overnight for observation.
As to the cause, GM said engineers had been working on a prototype battery system and were in the process of testing it. At the time of this posting, much is still unknown, though it is believed the explosion originated with some kind of chemical reaction gone awry.
A statement issued by GM said the incident was unrelated to any production vehicle, including the Chevrolet Volt, and the experimental battery itself did not explode.
“Chemical gases from the battery cells were released and ignited in the enclosed chamber,” GM said in a statement. “The battery itself was intact.”
With the GM Technical Center hosting advanced engineering and design groups, there’s a high level of security to prevent trade secrets from leaking out. While it may prove an advantage for GM and its employees, for rescue services, it can prove an obstacle due to the number of restricted entry points and locked doors.
This said, steps have been taken to minimize the impact of any disasters on campus; GM and local fire authorities having already staged mock fire drills. As a result, during real incidents like the battery lab fire, emergency response proved fairly quick and effective; firefighters were reportedly on site about six minutes after the explosion occurred.
“We’re happy with how it’s gone,” said local fire chief Skip McAdams.
Officials evacuated and sealed off the AEC, though other parts of the technical center reportedly continued to run as usual. All 80 employees working at the facility were accounted for with five being treated on site for minor injuries.
McAdams said that following a preliminary investigation, the fire “caused significant structural damage” to the facility and equipment within, though he also said safety systems directed the blast upwards and outwards, reducing the impact of the explosion on the building itself.
As the dust begins to settle, the rumor mill is nonetheless spinning once again. The Alternative Energy Center is where GM develops lithium-ion battery systems for hybrids and electric cars, including the Volt.
No doubt the incident’s timing was unfortunate for GM so soon after the highly publicized federal Volt fire investigation, and some observers will try to put together the dots to further cast doubt on battery safety.
While more info has yet to come forth, industry analysts were quoted as saying the mishap was an outcome of attempting to push technology to the limits in the search for improved power and range for automotive batteries.
“They are stretching the envelope,” said Edmunds.com analyst Michelle Krebs to the Detroit Free Press. “Everybody’s trying to get a breakthrough. They’re dealing with new volatile materials and new ways of doing things that haven’t been done before.”