Lithium battery fails to deliver, must be safer, regulators told

WASHINGTON, April 11 Thu Apr 11, 2013 1:14pm EDT

WASHINGTON, April 11 (Reuters) - Lithium-ion battery sales and performance have fallen far short of forecasts, and better technology is needed to improve their safety, battery experts told U.S. regulators on Thursday.

The failure of the technology to live up to expectations has put pressure on battery makers and helps explain the slow development of electric cars as well as the problems of lithium-ion in other applications, such as Boeing Co's 787 Dreamliner aircraft, the experts said at a forum organized by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.

The NTSB is investigating a battery fire on board a Dreamliner in January.

Analysts projections of the market made in 2008 "were off by more than a factor of 10" when compared with actual market size in 2011, said Yet-Ming Chiang, a professor of materials science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"This created a great deal of stress among those who manufacture batteries," he added. Some went out of business, mainly because the market for lithium-ion did not materialize.

"Even today there's a large (manufacturing) capacity worldwide that's not utilized and I attribute it mainly to the cost factor," he told the forum.

About 25 percent of a typical lithium-ion battery cell is flammable, Chiang said, which increases the risk of fire.

But making a cell safer through additives reduces performance, said Glen Bowing, vice president of sales at Saft Specialty Battery Group, a producer of lithium ion batteries. The industry needs to make the batteries safer without losing performance, he said.

Despite their shortcomings, lithium-ion batteries are widely used in laptops, cell phones and other portable electronics, as well as in cars such as the Chevrolet Volt, made by General Motors Co, and the Model S made by Tesla Motors Inc .

But the difficulties of lithium chemistry has prompted some experts to rework older battery technologies in hopes of finding a safer, less costly solution for modern uses.

Boeing's high-tech Dreamliner has a large electrical system and is the first commercial airplane to make extensive use of lithium-ion batteries, but they are not applied to flight-critical functions.

Regulators grounded the worldwide fleet of Dreamliners in January after batteries overheated on two of the jets.

Rival jetmaker Airbus subsequently dropped lithium-ion batteries from its forthcoming A350 jet, saying it wants to avoid the risk of delaying the jet's development.

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