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Hitting the Books: How Tesla engineers solved the problem of exploding EV batteries

Between CEO Elon Musk’s often inconsistent antics, strident rivalry from existing industry titans, and a public that is still not fully sold on the idea of traveling via electrical cost, Tesla’s street to standing has not been a smooth one. But facing a federal investigation into its driver assistance systems, is far from the biggest roadblock the company has steered. As correspondent Tim Higgins clarifies in his new book, Power Play, back in the early aughts, Tesla’s engineering unit had to overcome an even tougher challenge: remaining the first iterations of its EVs from haphazardly exploding.

Power Play coverKnopf Doubleday – Penguin Randomhouse

From the book POWER PLAY: Tesla, Elon Musk, and the Bet of the Century by Tim Higgins, be made available in the US on August 3, 2021 by Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a partition of Penguin Random House LLC, and in the UK on August 5, 2021 by WH Allen. Copyright( c) 2021 by Tim Higgins.

A panicked symbol from LG Chem arrived at Tesla with a dire involve: Return its batteries.

Just as Tesla was proving it could craft a lithium-ion artillery parcel on its own, the artillery manufacture was grappling with the danger that cells constituted when they were handled incorrectly. AC Propulsion had learned this the hard way months earlier, in one of an increasing number of incidents that direct shivers through the artillery industry. En route from Los Angeles to Paris, a shipment of AC Propulsion’s batteries caught burn as it was being loaded onto a FedEx airplane while it refueled in Memphis, provoking an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board and motivating concerns about how to transport artilleries in the future. Personal electronics business, such as Apple Inc ., were echoing manoeuvres with lithium-ion batteries out of concern they could overheat and catch fire. In 2004 and 2005, Apple echoed more than 150,000 laptops — with batteries made by LG Chem.

When LG Chem realized it had sold a large number of its artilleries to a Silicon Valley startup that planned to use all of them for a single machine — a vehicle, as it happened — its legal department transport a symbol demanding the cells be returned. The battery producer didn’t want to be associated with a potentially fiery experiment.

[ Tesla’s first CEO, Martin] Eberhard dismissed the request. He had little option. His bet that Tesla would be able to find a ready artillery supplier was proving harder to cover than expected. Without these batteries, there might not be a second chance to get more.

Amid all of the attention on lithium-ion artilleries,[ Tesla Co-Founder/ CTO, JB] Straubel anticipated back to his former house in LA, where he and[ Tesla employee number 7, Gene] Berdichevsky celebrated the idea of an electric car by setting cadres afire. If struck with a mallet, they put on quite a show. Vehicles were always in danger of that kind of impact, but there was also a more insidious threat. He began to wonder what might happen if one of the cells in the tightly compressed cluster that they are able to species a car’s battery pack got too warm.

One daylight in the summer of 2005, he and Berdichevsky decided to find out. With the bureau cleared out for the day, they went to the parking lot with a brick of cadres — a assemble of batteries glued together. They wrapped one of the cells with a wire that would allow them to heat it remotely. Then, from a safe interval, they flicked the heater on. The individual cadre rapidly rose to more than 266 severities Fahrenheit( 130 severities Celsius ), stimulating the battery to flash into a blind kindle as the temperature spiked to 1,472 magnitudes, then explode wholly, mailing the remaining skin of the artillery into the sky like a projectile. Then another cadre in the pack grab burn, launching into the air. Soon all of the cadres were on fire. Bang. Bang. Bang.

Straubel recognized the implications of his amateur pyrotechnics. If an incident like the one he cooked up were to happen in the wild, it could spell the end for Tesla. The next day, when they are disclosed their venture to Eberhard, they established him the scorched sidewalk, opposed with defects from the darknes before. Eberhard urged them to be more careful, but he couldn’t deny that more testing was needed. He accumulated the team at his urban house on the hills above Silicon Valley for more ventures. This time, they burrow a oppose and put a brick of cadres in it, then encompassed it with plexiglass. They heated one of the cells and again the batteries ignited, generating a order of detonations. Straubel had been right: this wasn’t good. They needed outside help to understand exactly what they were dealing with — the team needed battery experts.

Days last-minute, a small group of battery consultants were accumulated with what at first seemed like a practicable sense: Yes, even the best battery creators produced a random cadre that would have a defect, inducing it to short and catch fire. But the quirkies were remote. “It happens genuinely, genuinely occasionally, ” one of the consultants said. “I mean like between one in a million and one in ten million cells.”

But Tesla planned to put about 7,000 cells in a single gondola. Sitting near Straubel, Berdichevsky plucked out his calculator and estimated the probability that a cell in one of their automobiles might catch fire by luck. “Guys, that’s like between one in 150 and one in 1,500 autoes, ” he said.

And not only would they be churning out gondolas with imperfect artilleries that, if erupted, could set off a chain reaction, but their vehicles could be explosion in the garages of the richest of the rich–burning down mansions and igniting up local TV word. The depression in the office shifted. The questions became more urgent: Was there anything that could be done to avoid flawed cadres?

Nope. Random cadres were always going to get too hot and provoke thermal runaway — mostly an explosion activated by overheating.

Straubel and the team returned to their work deflated. The bets couldn’t have been higher for Tesla. This wasn’t just about solving a hard-handed difficulty, one that be in danger of drain limited resources and derail development of the Roadster. If they forged a solution that seemed to work, exclusively to see Tesla vehicles catch fire in years to come, the company would be doomed. And it would be a failure not just for Tesla; their dreams of the electric car could be set back a generation. They could not only cause injury or death, they might kill the electric car in the process.

If they wanted to truly become an automaker, they had to face the challenge that GM, Ford, and others had been dealing with for a hundred years: They had to ensure they were putting safe automobiles on the roadway. A solution to thermal runaway could amount to a true breakthrough, one that would determine Tesla apart from the automobile industry for years to come. Using lithium-ion batteries had seemed like a smart-alecky opinion, one that a number of philosophers had alighted on. But figuring out how to use them without turning the car into a ticking time bomb could be their greatest innovation.

They stopped work on all aspects of the Roadster project and structured a special committee to find a solution. The squad set up whiteboards, registering what the fuck is knew and what they needed to learn. They began flowing daily tests. They’d configure a artillery bundle with the cells spaced differently, to see if there was an ideal distance for containing chain reaction. They tried different methods of keeping the batteries cool, such as having air flow over them or tubes of liquid graze past them. They’d take the multitudes to a pad be exploited by local firefighters for training and ignite one of the cadres to better understand what was taking place.

The danger of the situation was driven dwelling while en route to one of those tests. Lyons, their recruit from IDEO, began to smell smoke coming from the back of his Audi A4, where he had loaded a carry of evaluation batteries. It was a sign that a cadre was heating up and approaching thermal runaway. He immediately stopped and snatched the artilleries out of the car and shed them to the ground before his automobile could catch fire — a close call.

Eventually, Straubel began to narrow in on a solution. If they couldn’t maintain a cell from warming, perhaps they could keep it from reaching the level where it set off a chain reaction. Through trial and error, the team realized that if they had each cell lined up a few millimeters from its neighbor, snaked a tube of liquid between them, and dropped a brownie-batter-like mixture of minerals into the resulting battery pack, they could create a system that contained overheating. If a defective cell within began to overheat, its power would disperse to the neighbouring cadres, with no individual cell ever contacting combustibility.

Where exactly months earlier they had been struggling to set up training workshops , now they were on to something entirely brand-new. Straubel was exhilarated. Now he simply needed to figure out how to convince the artillery suppliers to trust them. Straubel was hearing from Eberhard that the established creators weren’t interested in their business. As one manager at service suppliers told Eberhard: You guys are a shallow pocket. We’re a deep pocket. If your car blows up, we’ll probably get sued.

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