Gird yourself: It's possible we're about to see a new wave of attacks on electric cars that ignore battery science.
This time the culprit is the troubled Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft. The FAA has grounded all 787s after a string of fires in their lithium-ion battery packs; other countries have done the same.
Which has led at least one supposedly authoritative commentator to say that Boeing is having the same battery problems as those "that have shown up in electric cars."
The problem is that the two types of batteries are, in fact, quite different.
Here's the offending quote, from Paul Czysz, professor emeritus of aeronautical engineering at St. Louis University, as cited in a Boston Herald article this morning:
"Unfortunately, what Boeing did to save weight is use the same batteries that are in the electric cars, and they are running into the same problems with the 787 as the problems that have shown up in electric cars."
The author of the Boston Herald piece then went on to describe a 2011 fire in a Chevy Volt crash-test car that occurred several days after it was wrecked and rotated through 360 degrees by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
In January 2012, the NHTSA closed an investigation into Volt fires, concluding that "no discernible defect trend exists" and that "modifications recently developed by General Motors reduce the potential for battery intrusion resulting from side impacts."
Here's the problem: While the battery cells in Boeing 787s and, say, Chevrolet Volts are both in the lithium-ion family, they use very different chemistries.
You can think of lithium-ion cells rather like motor vehicles: They all do some variation of the same thing, but there are many different types, sizes, shapes, and different technologies to make that happen. Consider the difference between gasoline and diesel engines, for example.
The cells in the 787, from Japanese company GS Yuasa, use a cobalt oxide (CoO2) chemistry, just as mobile-phone and laptop batteries do.
That chemistry has the highest energy content, but it is also the most susceptible to overheating that can produce "thermal events" (which is to say, fires).
Only one electric car has been built in volume using CoO2 cells, and that's the Tesla Roadster. Only 2,500 of those cars will ever exist.
The Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car, on the other hand, uses LG Chem prismatic cells with manganese spinel (LiMn2O4) cathodes.
While chemistries based on manganese, nickel, and other metals carry less energy per volume, they are widely viewed as less susceptible to overheating and fires.
So if you see coverage of the Boeing 787 battery fires that says anything at all about electric cars, do consider dropping a friendly note to the reporter involved.
It may be unreasonable to expect every reporter in the world to know that "lithium-ion batteries" are a family of very different chemistries.
Science reporters, on the other hand--let alone engineering professors--really should know better.
You have been warned.
For anyone who isn't from Boston, or familiar with our Herald, here's what you need to know: it's a hack rag.
Well, at least this rules out the next problem with the 787. The accelerator won't get stuck to the floor or run away acceleration of the plane, lol.
In my days in R&D management, a lithium battery researcher once remarked that the better a lithium battery performed, the more it reminded him of a bomb.
McDonnell Douglas Aircraft, always made better aircraft. They just lost out one years to a government bid\politics.
Their engineers and workers are AWESOME!
I would expect neither science reporters nor engineering professors to be aware of the niceties of lithium battery chemistry. That is a ridiculous expectation. Only chemical engineers who develop these batteries could possibly be accountable to know this. Just knowing that both electric cars and these jets use "lithium batteries" is amazing, but I consider the misinformation caused in the newspaper to be "insignificant". Newspapers aren't a primary source, and I usually disregard comments made in any newspaper - there's no need to slight the Boston Herald for this. In fact, there's no need for the general public to be aware of the science of these batteries at all, without there being just more and pointless information overload. If a product isn't safe, it shouldn't be marketed. The blame lies squarely on developers of this battery, for not realizing its limitations.
My guess is that the problem does not lie in the battery itself, but in the power management circuits
Spark, you are drawing too fine a line. The writer wasn't speaking about the efficacy of dihydro monoxide as a cleaning agent. The writer said that Boeing was using THE SAME battery as the Volt an that simply isn't true. There are plenty of easily read web pages that explain the different L-ion chemistries currently in use.
Here's a good example. Living out here in the AZ desert, 120+ degree days are common place during the summer. During the winter, it's not unusual to see temperatures down around 25 degrees f. Last week is a good example.
Batteries for desert use have a greater volume of electrolyte while those batteries in colder winter climate trade acid for additional plates to increase its cold-cranking amp capacity. My 1999 Camry with just shy of 39000
verified miles on the clock is garaged and the battery is three years old and has never been fully discharged under load. The garage still got cold enough to severely strain its battery when cranked to start and had to be put to the charger before the Camry could be started.
Nothing wrong with the battery or its charging circuitry. Our weather is rarely cold enough to cause cold start problems until last week. It's usually appox. 70 degrees during late December/early January. The battery in used is appropriate for our weather.
If a writer does not verify what evidence he believes to be 'factual', then there is no doubt that writer is out-of-his-league and should refrain from publishing on that subject. Battery chemistries are not so exotic that the manufacturers don't publish the details that allows the public - or a mechanic - the needed info to make the best battery choice for their application.
Finally, we do NOT yet know that the batteries were at fault. One may have caught fire, but one can not exclude the charging systems until they have been tested.
No one yet has any answers regarding the batteries being used in the Dreamliner.
So go ahead, play connect the dots and see if it makes a picture or a mess:
There are many types of Lithium Ion batteries.
The Dreamliner batteries were said to be Lithium Cobalt Oxide (verifiable?).
Radiation affects some Li-Ion batteries (voltage, chemistry) to varying degrees.
Cosmic / x-ray radiation levels near the pole are far higher than elsewhere, especially following solar storms.
Solar activity is expected to peak in late 2013, it spikes from time to time.
The JAL Tokyo to Boston flight was near the north pole?
Did the ANA Dreamliner that made the emergency landing at Takamatsu fly near the pole on its previous flight?
What were the peak altitudes of both flights?
Battery damage looked maybe due to several hundred watts?
Internal currents? Breakdown of insulation?
Changes to electrolyte chemistry resulting from radiation?
How about internal electrical bleeding due to elevated voltages in some cells that did not translate to readable increases externally?
What test data does NASA possess that might tend to lend credence to or tend to discredit this?
The authors condescending tone is unfortunate. Particularly because in some ways he is more wrong than he is right. Yes it is true that Li-ion batteries with LiCoO2 cathodes are more susceptible to thermal runaway than most of the other Li-ion cathode active materials (LiMn2O4, LiFePO4, etc). But while the chemical composition of the two cathodes are different, the "battery chemistry" is still the same in those cells. They both use a graphitic carbon in the anode, and an organic solvent based electrolyte, with a lithium salt like LiPF6.
When you talk about the "chemistry of a battery" you are talking about two electrodes and an electrolyte (solvent + salt) that you pair together. All of these materials together determine the reactions and energy storage mechanisms of the cell, which in turn determine the properties and performance (including safety).
The organic electrolytes that are used in Li-ion batteries are highly flammable and are the main factor contributing to the fire susceptibility. Of course having a cathode that produces less heat is better, but that is because the entire cell is soaked in a highly flammable liquid.
An example of a "different battery chemistry" that doesn't have this problem is the lead-acid battery in our cars. Among other things, rather than a flammable organic solvent, the electrolyte is water based. Water doesn't tend to catch on fire as easily...
So while the professor saying they are the same battery does leave out the info of the higher susceptible of LiCoO2 cathodes to thermal runaway, it is more correct than the author saying the battery cell's use very different chemistries.
So as you requested, Mr. Voelcker, I am dropping you and PopSci a friendly note. It would appear that your article is motivated, and in defense of, your biased infatuation with electric vehicles. Journalism, particularly the "science" kind, needs no more of that.
I would love to see unbiased scientific reporting in a "popular" format, but that would require the unpopular act of not following the crowd. To Pop Sci: Li-ion powered electric vehicles do not belong in your "Green Car Reports". Replacing every internal combustion engine vehicle on the road with an EV with Li-ion batteries would be far worse for the environment, among other things. Feel free to contact me if you would like me to defend that statement. I will give you real scientific reporting.
I say this because I care about this planet, and all it's inhabitants, very deeply. And it's frustrating to see even the 'scientific' media following blindly.
Regarding sourcing the battery related information: I am receiving my PhD in materials science in a couple of months, and I work primarily on electrochemical energy storage devices.
Not the same you say? First,. it is the same technology. When did you folks get all messed up with semantics?
Second, why is the Tesla experiencing issues with fires as well?
Third, when this technology was first developed, there were problems with it causing fires in laptops. That's three strikes PopSci. You're outa there.