On Wednesday the advanced battery industry again received some negative publicity when an explosion in one of the laboratories at the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan injured one employee and caused the building to be evacuated.
According to press reports, the incident occurred during extreme abuse testing of a new prototype battery. During the test, gases apparently escaped from the battery cell being tested, failed for some reason to vent from the area, and were ignited by a heat source.
Mishaps in a laboratory are not a trivial thing. But they are also not uncommon or unexpected. In a sense, the whole point of abuse testing is to get something to go wrong. The more rigorous the abuse and testing, the safer the end product. Customers driving some future GM car will one day owe the safety of their vehicle in part to the unfortunate employee injured on Wednesday.
The only truly noteworthy thing about the accident was the publicity it received. Because of heightened public sensitivity to the safety of electric vehicles, a somewhat unexceptional laboratory mishap received national press coverage. This is to be expected, of course, when the subject is a much anticipated new energy technology that has unfortunately become somewhat politicized.
As I read with a sense of frustration the numerous reports of the Warren incident, I could not help but think about another news item from earlier in the week. Last Monday on CNBC, reporter and Tea Party hero Rick Santelli presented a lengthy piece on how easy it is to convert a vehicle to run on natural gas. As I watched Mr. Santelli, a trained financial professional, amble through the conversion process in his garage with safety goggles and about 1,000,000 btu’s of compressed energy, I could not help but worry that there was a better chance he was building a bomb-on-wheels than a useful vehicle. The demonstration went forward without comment or concern by the other CNBC commentators, many of whom undoubtedly reported extensively on the GM laboratory accident two days later.
Advanced batteries and compressed natural gas can both power vehicles and can do so safely if properly engineered and manufactured. The key to the safety of both technologies is rigorous testing, high quality manufacture, and minimum safety standards. As between the safety technology coming out of the GM Technical Center and that coming out of Mr. Santelli’s garage, I will take the GM technology any day of the week. Hopefully, the press will catch on soon.