AV to Benefit from NASA Research on Battery Safety

Lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries power millions upon millions of electronic devices—from phones and laptops to headphones and Bluetooth speakers—without incident but every now and then something goes awry. Who can forget Samsung’s massive recall (and eventual discontinuation of) the Galaxy Note 7 following reports of spontaneous combustion.

Li-ion batteries are also used to power electronics in space, so it’s not surprising that NASA would be working on ways to prevent them from overheating or catching fire. The space agency is working with Kulr, a company specializing in thermal-management systems, to develop cooling systems that wedge heat-absorbing carbon-fiber materials and even tiny water reservoirs between the battery cells to head off blazes, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.

Findings of the research is expected to find its way into personal robots, audio gear, and other earthbound electronics devices in the near future.

From the report:

…NASA’s initial goal was to prevent fiery accidents from lithium-battery malfunctions in space suits. The first modified suits are scheduled to be sent to the international space station in coming months…

The fire-prevention designs under development by NASA and Kulr aren’t meant for laptops or smartphones, but they are set to be used in consumer products such as centralized audio controls for homes and Ubtech Robotics Corp.’s Lynx, a new humanoid robot. Lynx features Amazon.com Inc.’s Alexa digital assistant and is slated to go on sale this summer.

Ubtech, a fast-growing Chinese robot maker, is in the final stages of testing the Lynx robots, which will offer facial-recognition capabilities and personalized greetings, along with other features available on Amazon’s Wi-Fi connected Echo speakers. Goti Deng, closely held Ubtech’s chief strategy officer, said the “demands for battery performance are really high,” but “right now Kulr is a star” in finding ways to reduce the risk of dangerous overheating.

Ubtech already relies on Kulr to safeguard robots sold by major U.S. retailers such as Best Buy Co. and Costco Wholesale Corp...

Kulr Chief Executive Michael Mo said the company is far enough along to start assessing commercial applications, ranging from medical devices to drones to electrical systems on airliners. The company, which is based in Campbell, Calif., also has signed a wide-ranging marketing deal with Jabil Circuits Inc., a manufacturer of electronic products for customers such as International Business Machines Corp., HP Inc. and Xerox Corp.

“Battery technology has outpaced thermal-protection technology,” said Keith Cochran, Jabil vice president of global business units, who added that Kulr’s technology “is very credible and the products work.” He said he expects Jabil to showcase Kulr’s technology in a line of home audio-control equipment within a few months.

Lithium power packs installed in robots, lights and some appliances are growing more powerful. They pose increasing challenges for fire-suppression systems, particularly if shipments burst into flames in cargo holds of airplanes. Fires hot enough to melt aluminum fuselages—which were sparked or fed by large shipments of lithium batteries—destroyed three large jets over the past decade. Each year dozens of emergencies and diversions prompted by smoldering or flaming laptops in airliner cabins are reported world-wide…

By encapsulating water in specially treated carbon-fiber based pockets, the company has been able to keep cell temperatures below 158 degrees Fahrenheit even when an adjoining test cell’s temperature climbed to about 1,000 degrees in one 2016 test cited by NASA. Recent lab results have been even more favorable, according to company test summaries.


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