Thursday, October 3, 2013

Does Tesla's Battery Fire Tempt Boeing to Schadenfreude?

The joke about the mixed emotions when ones' mother-in-law drives off a cliff in your brand-new-car surely must describe how Boeing feels today watching Tesla defend the lithium ion batteries powering its cars. 

Tuesday (while I was writing a nice little feature  for the Times about a Tesla S as wedding coach) a similar sedan caught fire in Washington state, a roaring blaze captured on video by a passing motorist who spontaneously opined "Oh, s--t dude, that's a brand new car!" 

He then adds, "Wow, I can feel the heat in here." That may be the more significant statement which I will get to in a moment.
For now, I want to remind readers that when Boeing experienced two thermal events on Dreamliner batteries in January, prompting safety regulators to ground the airplane for four months, Tesla's boss, Elon Musk told FlightGlobal that the planemaker's design was "inherently unsafe."

Along with others, I've been saying that as well. The difference here is that Musk believes his company figured out the secret sauce; more, smaller and more widely separated cells while Boeing was using large, more closely-spaced cells in the Dreamliner.

Celina Mikokajczak at the NTSB hearing on lithium ion battery safety
This is what makes the batteries on Tesla electric cars safer than Boeing's electric plane, according to Musk. Celina Mikokajczak, an Tesla engineer explained this and more to the NTSB at a hearing in Washington DC in April.

In order to get the airplanes back in the air, Boeing did create more breathing room between the eight cells per battery on the two batteries on each 787. Boeing also constructed a big box it claims will contain any thermal event and vent any fumes. But whether Musk and his clever chemical engineers (or Boeings' for that matter) have really tamed the beast is still up for discussion.

Lewis Larsen about whom I have written in the past, is already overheated about the Tesla fire. In a mailing to me today, he writes that the fire "is really a form of thermal runaway" and that far from being the smartest folks in the room regarding lithium ion batteries, the Tesla folks have just been the luckiest.

He wasn't there of course, but Larsen is concerned that the battery may have caught fire spontaneously because Tesla hasn't solved the problem thermal runaway problems, nor has anyone else.

Tesla, however, is telling reporters "a large metal object" hit one of the modules on the battery triggering the blaze. This is not a minor distinction as far as Larsen is concerned because he's telling anyone who will listen that these battery cells go bad without notice and that when they do, they can heat up to nuclear-reaction-like temperatures.

Now, the comment of our citizen videographer, who driving by the flaming $70,000 sedan says, "Wow, I can feel the heat in here," begins to sound more ominous.

Which is why, Boeing executives may be tempted to feel a bit of schadenfreude now that the negative news spotlight has turned from their airplane to Musk's fancy car. But that's going to be fleeting. There's no reveling in Tesla's discomfort because when it comes to lithium ion batteries, the heat goes both ways.


Michael S said...

I believe the term "thermal runaway" is being used with the implication that this only applies to electro-chemical reactions. Thermal runaway could also apply to what occurs with the explosion of a hydrocarbon filled tank when ignition is initiated . The electro-chemical reaction that ensues with high density batteries, and the chemical reaction that ensues with hydrocarbon fuels can have a similar thermal runaway which result in flames and an explosion.

Nikos said...

I studied chemistry at school 35 years ago, and any exothermic reaction can lead to thermal runaway especially if the reaction vessel contains the energy....oh dear Boeing.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Unknown said...

The difference between the Tesla and the B787 is that in the car, you feel the heat, just stop the car and get out. Given the other benefits of electric cars, the risks are worth it.

In the B787 however, many engineers question two aspects of the amount of electrical power it needs - 1. The electrical system has inherent problems that bleed air and hydraulics do not have. 2. Given that the batteries only come into use after both engines and the APU has failed - that is, they are 4th line in an emergency. Another APU would be a much better backup with a lot less hassle.

Wendy Owen said...

Tesla caught lying about fires: