GM’s Battery Explosion: What We Currently Know

After Wednesday’s breaking story in which an explosion erupted at General Motors’ Alternative Energy Center, located on the grounds of the sprawling Technical Center campus in Warren, Mich, there have been a number of rumors circulating.

Although some sources reporting the story have said “that automaker which builds the Chevy Volt,” the notion of linking this explosion to the NHTSA Volt battery fires earlier this year seems to have been largely ignored, or at the very least downplayed, even though some industry analysts mentioned that it could be another opportunity for Volt bashing.

What has emerged however, are unconfirmed accounts that the experimental battery, on which testing was being conducted at the time of the explosion, was produced by A123 systems. Although A123 does supply batteries to some GM current and future vehicles, notably the upcoming Spark Electric Vehicle, so far there’s been no official word that the battery in question was an A123 example, as spokesmen from both the battery company and GM have declined to comment regarding the make of battery involved.

A123 has already come under scrutiny in recent months, notably due to the highly publicized “failure” of the Fisker Karma during an evaluation by Consumer Reports (during a road test the car flashed an error code and became locked in gear).

According to General Motors, which issued a press statement on Wednesday afternoon, the explosion was caused by “chemical gases from the battery cells [that] were released and ignited in the enclosed [test] chamber. The battery itself was intact.” In the same statement GM reaffirmed that the battery in question was not linked to the Chevrolet Volt nor any other production vehicle. In fact, those familiar with the program have said the battery was being developed for use in future electric vehicles.

Lithium-ion batteries have become increasingly popular among automakers because they can store several times the energy possible with lead-acid batteries, making them far more suitable for providing an electrical charge to help move larger objects such as vehicles. However, the trade-off is the added energy capacity increases the risk of combustibility, one reason why GM and others have invested heavily in extreme lab testing to minimize the chances of this happening.

“People need to understand that part of developing new technology is pushing it to the limits. Stuff is going to go wrong,” remarked Brett Smith from the Center of Automotive Research, located in Ann Arbor, Mich. just west of Metro Detroit. David Cole, chairman emeritus for CAR, added, in reference to the battery explosion; “when you have high-energy density, whether it’s in gasoline or diesel fuel or batteries or whatever, you’re going to have potential problems.” The day the incident occurred, Cole was at the opening of TARDEC’s new U.S. Army Ground Power Systems and Energy Laboratory Complex, another Warren based operation designed to pursue similar objectives to AEC, albeit for military applications.

As for the AEC itself, building design has been considered a major factor in why the explosion was contained. The structure and other areas of the Technical Center continued to function as normal following the accident.

“When [the AEC] was being constructed, because it was so new, there were a lot of decisions made because we were writing the book on this,” said Warren Fire Commissioner Skip McAdams on Wednesday. “In a sense, I’m happy with the work we did in permitting this building.”

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  • Dana Schully

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