How do engineers safely test potentially-explosive batteries?

Mar 14, 2013

Boeing will soon start testing its redesigned Dreamliner battery. Battery experts say that means engineers will have to experiment with flammable lithium-ion batteries to see if, well, they explode. 

Engineers subject the batteries to something called safety abuse testing — crushing them, sticking nails in them — to see what happens.

So how do engineers manage to stay safe? 

The trick, according to battery expert Dan Doughty, is to not get too close.

"When the testing is designed to bring a cell to failure, it’s almost always done remotely," Doughty said.

Dan Doughty is retired from Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque. During his career at the lab, he developed test standards for batteries used in electric vehicles.

Doughty says the battery would be in one room, set up with monitors, and the engineers would be in another room, away from potential danger. At Sandia, battery testing was conducted in a room used for explosives testing, and for good reason. Batteries can act like explosives if you stress them enough.

"Sometimes it’s a fire and if there’s a more rapid explosion, parts of the cells will be blown across the room or something like that," Doughty said.

But Doughty says such reactions are rare; he and his fellow engineers were always cautious and never in danger. If a battery did catch on fire, the engineers would wait until temperature sensors told them it was safe to go into the room. Then they’d clean up, sometimes repaint the walls and get ready for another test.