How Safe Is a Lithium-powered Electric Car?

The risk of thermal runaway of lithium-ion batteries is multiplied by the thousands in vehicles. In the case of Tesla Motors' car, for example, almost 7,000 batteries are packed behind the passenger compartment to power the car.

Published: 03-Aug-2006

Laptops equipped with lithium-ion batteries occasionally overheat and catch fire. This has some people concerned about the use of this type of battery in new electric sports cars and kits for converting conventional cars and hybrid vehicles into all-electric cars.

It's an exciting time for electric vehicles -- with regular announcements of increasing storage capacities for battery materials and exotic, high-priced vehicles slated to come onto the market, such as the recently announced sports car from Tesla Motors of San Carlos, CA. But electric vehicles have failed in the past. If they're going to succeed this time around, they'll need to win over the general consumer, and that will mean, among other things, demonstrating that the powerful battery packs are safe.

Lithium-ion batteries have long been favored for powering laptops and cell phones because they're small and light. But packing so much energy into a small space is also dangerous. The batteries have been known to burst into flames, sometime violently; and because both the fuel and the oxidizer are bundled into the battery, they can't be smothered like common fires, says Dan Doughty, who manages lithium-ion battery testing at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, NM.

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