The main power source of the electric car, the lithium ion battery, may face bigger issues, though not with its performance in cars but in misinformation, especially in the latest news on the grounding of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, a string of fires in the Boeing 787 was said to have started from the lithium ion battery pack of the aircraft.
Despite being in another vehicle platform altogether, many commentators are now saying that the Boeing issue has also the same incidents “that have shown up in electric cars.” Unfortunately this conclusion is at best misleading and the two battery types are very different from one another.
The said conclusion was made by Paul Czysz, Professor Emeritus of Aeronautical Engineering at St. Louis University, when he said, “Unfortunately, what Boeing did to save weight is use the same batteries that are in the electric cars and they are running into the same problems with the 787 as the same problems that have shown up in electric cars.”
This quote had appeared in the Boston Herald, which than went into a narration of a 2011 Chevy Volt fire during crash testing done at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. By 2012, the same investigation concluded that ‘there is no discernible defect trend exists’. It further said that ‘modifications recently developed by General Motors reduce the potential for battery intrusion resulting from side impacts.’
Unfortunately, the conclusion is at best misleading, because while the Boeing battery and the electric car battery are both lithium ion batteries, they have very different chemistries. While both are batteries, there are major differences that clearly make the Boeing battery very different from the electric car battery. One such example is the composition of the Boeing battery, built by GS Yuasa, and utilizes a cobalt oxide chemistry very similar to what consumer electronics such as mobile phones and laptops would have. This composition is considered as having the highest rating regarding energy content but its downside its high susceptibility to overheating that can lead to electrical fires.
On the side of the electric cars, only the Tesla Roadster utilizes this version of the lithium ion battery. Other cars, such as the Chevy Volt, use the LG Chem Prismatic Cells with manganese spinel (LiMn2O4) cathode chemistry. While this has a lower energy per volume rating, this chemical set up makes it less susceptible to overheating and thermal events.
This is in essence what ignorance of the facts can lead to hysteria and misinformation. Unfortunately, even learned engineers make the same mistake.