This new material can even handle lava.
The ongoing Chevy Bolt fire recall highlighted one of the main concerns about the inevitable all-electric future. The Detroit Free Press recently dug a little deeper into the issue, and there may be a solution.
First, a general explanation of why EV fires are so dangerous. Lithium-ion batteries burn hotter and longer than a simple gas fire. If a single battery malfunctions, it can cause a thermal runaway, which is essentially one battery igniting the next one in sequence. As this chain reaction continues, the fire increases in temperature. This process can last for hours, unlike a gas car that ignites and burns until there's nothing left.
A gas fire is also easily defeated by water. Earlier this year, we reported on firefighters struggling for three hours to put out a burning Tesla Model S Plaid while using two firetrucks. Thanks to a spate of EV fires, manufacturers, in general, have started taking action.
“There's a whole slew of issues that come with electric car fires,” said battalion chief Michael Magdaof the Livonia Fire Department. “With internal combustion engines, those fires are not caused by gasoline. They're usually caused by an electrical failure that heated up, melted something, and started the fire. But in an electric vehicle, those metals have a 'thermal runaway' – they combust and spread through the battery tray quickly.”
The Chinese government is putting extreme measures in place to ensure the safety of occupants. Manufacturers are required to engineer a failsafe that ensures the battery pack will not combust five minutes after it's compromised. Since China is the biggest EV consumer, these stringent regulations impact every EV manufacturer in existence, including Tesla, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi.
Oddly, the answer to this global problem can be found in Wixom, Michigan. The company is called Munro & Associates, and it is collaborating with an international conglomerate called SABIC on this project.
The solution is elegant in its simplicity. It is just a piece of plastic with an extremely high tolerance to heat. Currently, aluminum is the most commonly used to house battery packs due to its strength and low weight. Unfortunately, aluminum is a conductor, which speeds the combustion process along quite rapidly. Battery modules also have no problem burning through aluminum.
The plastic tray designed by Munro & Associates – formerly known as GE Plastics – can withstand 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes. We shouldn’t be surprised, considering the team of engineers consists of people previously employed by NASA, the Department of Energy, the EPA, and the Department of Defense.
“People will think thermoplastic burns like a candle or melts, but we have developed a new thermoplastic that does not burn, does not melt, and self extinguishes,” said Dave Sullivan, electrification and engineering market developer at SABIC. “Our chemists have developed the unique formulation that doesn't compromise strength, reliability, or safety.”
SABIC already has a dedicated automotive team, already working with engineers from Detroit, China, France, Korea, Japan, and Germany. “The new regulations in China really threw a curveball at the industry,” Sullivan said. “When this was introduced by the Chinese government, there were no materials to deliver what the regulation required.”
It should be no surprise that the group is already in talks with domestic and foreign manufacturers, considering how big the car business is in China.