Detroit Encore Entrepreneurs Blaze New Trail With LithFire-X

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vehicles. What they were doing to protect customers from battery fires, he asked each dealership. The answer? Not much.

Butler and Flood emphasize that they don’t fault the industry for not knowing what it didn’t know. “It was new to them as well,” Butler says. “It’s part of the learning curve. We realized the industry is laser-focused on making excellent batteries, and they didn’t consider the possible downside.”

“I’d been in the hospital, and I realized that all these laptops, beds, monitors, phones, and just about everything else had battery packs,” Flood points out. “Lots of things are powered by lithium-ion batteries, and, especially in a hospital, that could be a big problem.”

In fact, according to Frost and Sullivan, as of 2012, the global market for lithium ion batteries is near $11.7 billion, a number that is expected to double by 2016. When a lithium-ion battery catches fire, the ensuing publicity can also generate a lot of heat. In October, the driver of a Tesla S ran over a metal object that caused the vehicle’s lithium-ion battery pack to erupt in flames. A video of the fire went viral, causing the company’s stock prices to plummet.

Despite the potential for disaster, Flood and Butler say, their warnings to manufacturers about lithium battery hazards often weren’t welcomed.

“As we moved forward, it was almost like they stuck their heads in the sand,” Butler says. “They’d rather not hear from you, because once they hear, they’re locked in on the problem. But we’re not in business to demonize the industry. We’re trying to make sure people remain safe.”

The problem, according to Butler and Flood, is “thermal runaway,” a significant increase in battery temperature that creates conditions where the temperature keeps escalating. The anodes in lithium-ion batteries start breaking down when temperatures exceed 80 degrees Celsius. At 110 degrees, flammable hydrocarbon is released. Polymer electrodes start short circuiting at 135 degrees. Then, as heat and pressure grow, an open flame is released.

There are multiple causes for these fires, including excessive heat, mechanical failure, electrical failure, design flaws, and overcharging. The batteries themselves contain flammable liquids. Add electricity to an already combustible environment, and the results can be disastrous.

Though there are currently no formal safety standards in place specifically for lithium-ion batteries, most manufacturers, shippers, testers, and warehousers recommend hand-held extinguishers as a means to fight lithium-ion battery fires. LithFire-X says hand-held extinguishers should be considered a last resort, and instead the company has developed automatic fire suppression solutions that don’t require human intervention. This includes a specialized shipping box for large-format lithium-ion battery packs like those used in EVs and hybrids.

The company’s intellectual property lies in the material that lines the inside of the … Next Page »

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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