Gas Detectors as a Thermal Runaway Protection

On June 26th, 2019, a vehicle exploded while parked in its owner's garage in Montreal without warning.1 This phenomenon was the result of a thermal runaway process affecting the car's lithium-ion battery. During thermal runaway, the energy – in this case, energy in the battery - is rapidly converted into heat, which, in 2019, exploded the garage door and destroyed much of the roof in the process.

This could have been prevented by gas detection technology.

Thermal Runaway in Lithium-Ion Batteries

Despite their numerous advantages, lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries have some significant drawbacks. The failure of a single cell can result in widespread heating, which can cause an uncontrolled exothermic degradation of the whole battery pack. In other words, Li-ion batteries can undergo spontaneous combustion.

Thermal runaway likely occurs as a result of mechanical abuse, heating, or overcharging damage. Research has shown, however, that several thermal runaway events occur without any apparent damage or stress to the battery.2

Li-ion batteries are still widely considered safe, and thermal runaway is not common. The use of Li-ion batteries is increasing, and they remain the most frequently used type of rechargeable battery on the planet. To mitigate the potential damage caused by thermal runaway, it is clear that robust early detection and monitoring systems must be implemented on a wide scale.

Gas Detection Technology: How Can It Help?

Gas detectors can provide a reliable early warning system, while the precise mechanisms of thermal runaway can vary. One of the first indicators of a cell failure that could potentially lead to thermal runaway is the increase in hydrogen and carbon dioxide levels.3

In the event of June 26th, 2019, nobody was in or near the car that exploded. If there had been any personnel around, there would likely not have been sufficient time to respond before the thermal runaway spiraled out of control.

Detection of cell failure within just a few seconds would be enabled by integrating gas sensors into battery management systems in electric vehicles (EVs). A warning time of only a few seconds is enough to enable occupants to exit the vehicle safely and deploy countermeasures. Such a system in parked vehicles would allow people nearby to retreat to a safe distance.

Thermal runaway can also occur in stationary energy storage systems, which typically have much higher capacity and are not unique to electric vehicles.

In April 2019, one of these Li-ion energy storage systems (ESS) in Arizona underwent thermal runaway. The facility in question had a storage capacity of around 50 times the energy capacity of a typical electric car battery – or 2.16 MWh.

The initial detection of the fault arose only when smoke from the battery reached smoke detectors inside the facility – which was too late. An explosion occurred when firefighters arrived to tackle the blaze, which caused significant injuries to four members of the HAZMAT team.4

To provide comprehensive protection against large-scale thermal runaway, gas detectors can be integrated into battery systems in energy storage applications or deployed as standalone devices within facilities.

Such systems provide an early warning to nearby personnel, which enables countermeasures to be put in place to minimize the effects of any impending thermal runaway and protect infrastructure.

Amphenol Thermal Runaway Detection Solutions

Amphenol has worked closely with OEMs to develop robust, rapid detection systems based on its industrial CO2 and H2 sensor technology for thermal runaway in Li-ion battery systems.5

Amphenol's Robust Early Detection of Thermal Runaway (REDTR) system detects the signature early warning signs of thermal runaway. The system provides ample time for the battery management system to ensure safety in EV or stationary ESS applications and enact countermeasures.

REDTR is completely system-agnostic, and by monitoring H2, CO2, pack pressure, temperature, and relative humidity, it can function effectively, no matter the specifics of a given battery system.

Physics-based technology gives REDTR a service life of up to 20 years, which is ideal for use in any EV or ESS applications. The REDTR's compact configuration allows the sensor system to be integrated directly into the battery management system or used as a standalone device.

To learn more about Amphenol's REDTR system, read its articles or reach out to Amphenol directly.

References and Further Reading

  1. News ·, C. B. C. Electric car catches fire and explodes in Île-Bizard garage | CBC News. CBC https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/electric-car-catches-fire-and-explodes-in-%C3%AEle-bizard-garage-1.5227665 (2019).
  2. Xiong, R., Ma, S., Li, H., Sun, F. & Li, J. Toward a Safer Battery Management System: A Critical Review on Diagnosis and Prognosis of Battery Short Circuit. iScience 23, 101010 (2020).
  3. Koch, S., Birke, K. P. & Kuhn, R. Fast Thermal Runaway Detection for Lithium-Ion Cells in Large Scale Traction Batteries. Batteries 4, 16 (2018).
  4. UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute, McKinnon, M., DeCrane, S. & Kerber, S. Four Firefighters Injured in Lithium-Ion Battery Energy Storage System Explosion -- Arizona. https://fsri.org/research-update/report-four-firefighters-injured-lithium-ion-battery-energy-storage-system (2020) doi:10.54206/102376/TEHS4612.
  5. Thermal Runaway Detection in Lithium Ion Batteries - Application Spotlight. https://www.amphenol-sensors.com/en/product-spotlights/3498-thermal-runaway-sensor.

This information has been sourced, reviewed and adapted from materials provided by Amphenol Advanced Sensors.

For more information on this source, please visit Amphenol Advanced Sensors.

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