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USA: GM Battery Lab Explosion Attributed To Gases From A123 Cells

The Detroit News quotes an unnamed source this morning as saying that the battery pack being tested that caused yesterday’s explosion at GM’s Warren Technical Center contained lithium-ion cells from battery maker A123 Systems.

The Chevrolet Spark EV is the only GM electric vehicle known to use a lithium-ion battery pack with cells supplied by A123 Systems. The Spark EV’s recent Los Angeles validation testing was the subject of aggressive GM publicity last month.

A123 Systems [NSDQ:AONE] has had a tough year, and this will not help. The company said it would recall batteries sold to five different manufacturers due to possible defects in a few lithium-ion cells.

That defect apparently caused a 2012 Fisker Karma to shut down entirely during a road test by Consumer Reports.

Late yesterday, General Motors issued a statement, summarizing the incident as follows:

An incident occurred about 8:45 a.m. Wednesday inside a test chamber at the [GM] Alternative Energy Center during extreme testing of an experimental battery. Chemical gases from the battery cells were released and ignited in the enclosed chamber. The battery itself was intact.

The battery tested and the incident have no connection with the Chevrolet Volt or any other GM production vehicle.

Employee safety is a priority at GM. Employees were evacuated from the building where the incident occurred. Five people were evaluated by medical personnel; one has been admitted to an area hospital for treatment.

The company also said that except for the battery lab itself and adjacent offices, all areas of the Alternative Energy Center in its Warren complex would be open and operating normally today.


ORIGINAL ARTICLE, Wed, Apr 11 (updated several times):

Local Detroit news is reporting an explosion and fire at the GM Technical Center battery laboratory in Warren, Michigan, at approximately 8:45 am.

Fire officials said two workers were taken to the hospital, with injuries that are not life-threatening, according to local news station WWJ.

Later reports in The Detroit News said one person was taken to the hospital and four others were being evaluated.

The explosion was attributed to a lithium-ion battery by local deputy fire chief Gary Wilkinson, who used the phrase “most likely” for the attribution.

The WWJ news report very responsibly noted that the lab stresses batteries to their limits, and that the incident does not indicate any danger to drivers or owners of electric cars.

One building, presumably the battery lab facility, has been closed at the Warren Technical Center, with all employees evacuated. The remainder of the Tech Center remains open for “business as usual,” according to reports from the site.

Kevin Kelly, a GM spokesperson, told The Detroit News the company was “aware of an incident this morning” at a lab facility that “required a fire and emergency response.”

He said all employees had been tracked down and accounted for. Lab personnel numbered approximately 80 people.

The battery lab, which was recently expanded, is where GM engineers test, validate, and monitor the performance of lithium-ion cells from various different manufacturers.

It is where the battery pack for the Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car was developed. That pack uses cells from Korean maker LG Chem, which were selected in a two-way competition with cells from A123 Systems.

A fire in the battery pack of a Chevy Volt that had been totaled in a NHTSA crash test caught fire last summer, three weeks after the test.

The subsequent NHTSA investigation concluded that “no discernable defect” existed, but not before GM CEO Dan Akerson was called to testify before a Congressional committee.

GM subsequently offered battery-pack modifications for roughly the first 10,000 Volts to reduce any risk, but the update was voluntary, not a recall.

UPDATE 3: By about 2 pm this afternoon, the one injured employee is described as having serious injuries including a possible concussion and “chemical burns,” but is expected to make a full recovery according to a GM spokesperson.


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