Green used to be just another color, but not anymore, now it’s a state of being. Beyond “being green” it can also be a place (going green) or a political party (the Green Party). It seems everything is green. Why not? It’s good for the planet.

One of the giant parts of the green movement is curbing global warming by cutting carbon emissions from vehicles. That’s harkened in new generation of electric and hybrid cars that work off of lithium ion batteries, which are promising, but is there a risk of lithium-ion battery fires?

This year one of the most popular hybrids, the Chevrolet Volt, caught fire while parked in lot of non-other than the Wisconsin Testing Center of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) three weeks after a side-impact crash test May 12th.

News of the incident and the ongoing investigation has only surfaced now and was not intended to be released to the public. According to unidentified investigators talking to Business Week, it is suspected that the fire began in on of the lithium-ion batteries. This incident and other possible incidents involving lithium-ion batteries are being investigated.

What Are Lithium-Ion Batteries?

This new generation of battery has quickly become the gold standard for energy storage in portable devices, such as notebook computers and smart phones because of its lightness and high energy density. As you might be able to tell from the name, they are composed of Lithium, the lightest metal and the metal that has the highest electrochemical potential.

Lithium-Ion batteries do not use poisonous metals, such as lead, mercury or cadmium. Lithium, however, is an unstable metal, so Lithium-Ion batteries are made from Lithium ions from chemicals. However, this does not make them all-together safe as the computer industry learned early on in the development of the technology.

Dell, Toshiba, Lenovo, and Apple Computer, in conjunction with the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), announced large recalls of laptop batteries in the summer of 2006. It was found that Sony manufactured all of the recalled batteries prompting the company to announce recall of all lithium-ion batteries that year.

It was found that these batteries could overheat, potentially causing burns, an explosion or a fire. Later investigation found that it was how the batteries worked that could have been the culprit. In a normal battery, energy from electrochemical reactions causes electrons to collect at the battery’s negatively charged pole. Charged particles are attracted to opposite charge, so if you connect a battery to a circuit, the electrons will flow from the negative pole, through the circuit and to the battery’s positively charged pole.

However, In a lithium-ion battery, you’ll find pressurized containers that house a coil of metal and a flammable, lithium-containing liquid. The manufacturing process creates tiny pieces of metal that float in the liquid. If the battery gets hot through use or recharging, the pieces of metal can move around and possibly puncture the separator, causing a short circuit.

Some of the consequences of lithium-ion batteries overheating is:

  • Spark – he flammable liquid can ignite, causing a fire.
  • Explode – The temperature inside the battery rises rapidly, builds pressure, and the battery can explode.
  • Melt – The high temperatures can cause the battery to melt and the liquid inside can leak out.

How Dangerous are Lithium-Ion Batteries In Cars?

The fire prompted General Motors and NHTSA to both resume crash tests on the Volt in order to reproduce the May fire, however, they said that they have been unable to replicate the exact circumstances.

Throwing the incident directly in the lap of NHTSA, GM spokesmen have stated that they have safety procedures in place for handling the Volt and its battery after an accident, however, NHTSA neglected to enact those procedures right after the accident. They said that had those been followed, there wouldn’t have been a fire.

Officials from NHTSA and the Energy Department told Business Week that next week they plan to test Volt battery modules that have been removed from the cars to see if they can replicate the condition that led to the fire. The agencies will study the batteries immediately and continue to observe them in the coming weeks.

“Lithium burns really hot,” said Sandy Munro, president of Munro and Associates, an engineering consulting firm in Troy, Michigan. “If the piercing is small, that reaction can take days or weeks to occur. But it doesn’t happen often. You have to do something pretty dramatic to make it catch fire.”

In a car accident, metal is crushed, twisted, and scattered. If a lithium battery is pierced by steel, a chemical reaction will start raising the temperature and can result in a fire.

Defective Design Lawyers

The fire in May was severe enough to burn vehicles parked near the Volt, the agency official said. Investigators determined the battery was the source of the fire, the official said.

NHTSA also sent a team of investigators this week to Mooresville, North Carolina, to probe a fire in a residential garage where a Volt was charging. That investigation is continuing, the agency official said.

It is the responsibility of the company to adequately design and test their products prior to rolling them out to the market for consumers to purchase. Of course there are long term problems that can’t be predicted, but there is also research available in products produced in the past that set a precedent for hazards that can effect a myriad of other products in the future. The constant charging of battery units is one of those design flaws.

If you or a loved one have experienced property damage or a full fire or suffered serious personal injuries or wrongful death due to the defective design call Product Liability Lawyers at Phillips Law Firm for a free consultation as to how you can get the compensation you deserve.