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Feds Investigate Chevy Volt Batteries Following Fire

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The feds are investigating Chevy Volt fires that appear to be linked to lithium batteries. The Chevrolet Volt, an electric car, caught fire three weeks after it was involved in side-impact crash testing, said The New York Times.

Now, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which commissioned the Volt test, is asking auto makers which make or intend on making lithium-ion battery-operated vehicles about their vehicles’ batteries’ risks, including “special handling and discharging recommendations,” said the Times, “including any recommendations for mitigating fire risks in these vehicles,” according to the just-released NHTSA statement. LG Chem. Ltd., which is the largest chemical maker in South Korea, is the Volt battery supplier, said Businessweek.

The NHTSA said it wanted to stress that it was not implying that electric vehicles are “at a greater risk of fire than other vehicles” but did point out that electric or part-electric vehicles, depending on design and electrical make-up, “require different safety standards and precautions,” according to The Times. General Motors spokesman, Greg Martin told The Times, “This is an industry issue … the Volt is safe.” Jim Federico, GM’s chief engineer told Businessweek in an mail that, “I want to make this very clear: the Volt is a safe car…. We are working cooperatively with NHTSA as it completes its investigation. However, NHTSA has stated that based on available data, there’s no greater risk of fire with a Volt than a traditional gas-powered car.”

The Volt fire in question occurred while the car was in storage; the NHTSA, “concluded that the crash test damaged the Volt’s lithium-ion battery and that the damage led to a vehicle fire that took several weeks to develop,” The Times reported.

The auto industry is looking into how to safely handle lithium batteries after a crash, said Professor Tomasz Wierzbicki, director of the Impact and Crashworthiness Laboratory at M.I.T., wrote the Times. Professor Wierzbicki pulled together a panel to study lithium battery safety and, according to the professor, vehicle lithium-ion battery packs are susceptible to damage from direct impacts and violent and sudden stops with damage that might not be externally detectable, said The Times.

Both the NHTSA and the Energy Department will be testing some Volt battery modules to see if the fire can be replicated, said the NHTSA, wrote Businessweek. Lithium batteries are used in electric vehicles because they are believed to be able to withstand a serious accident, according to Sandy Munro, president of the engineering consulting firm, Munro and Associates, wrote Businessweek. But, the battery case or internal cells can catch fire and fire can occur if steel or iron pierce the area in which electricity is stored. “Lithium burns really hot,” Munro said in a telephone interview with Businessweek. When pierced with metal, a chemical reaction can increase the temperature and cause a fire, but if the reaction smaller, the fire can take time to occur, according to Munro, said Businessweek.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), in a 2010 airline advisory warned about lithium batteries in all sorts of devices saying that lithium batteries are “highly flammable and capable of ignition,” and that fire-suppression systems are not effective for these types of fires, said Businessweek. The advisory was issued after a United Parcel Service Inc. cargo plane transporting thousands of lithium batteries crashed in Dubai after catching fire; both pilots were killed.

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