A white Tesla Model S badly damaged in a crash three weeks earlier and parked in a junkyard in Rancho Cordova, Calif., unexpectedly caught fire, burning at more than 3,000 degrees, according to the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District.
The electric car was on fire when firefighters arrived. The car’s battery compartment reignited the fire every time it was briefly extinguished, firefighters said in a Instagram post.
“Crews extinguished the fire, but the car continued to reignite and gasse in the battery compartment,” the department said. “Even with direct penetration, the vehicle would still reignite due to residual heat. Crews and personnel on site then created a small pit, placed the car inside, and filled the pit with water effectively submerging the battery compartment.
According to the Washington Post, the department was finally able to extinguish the fire after one hour and 4,500 gallons of water. This isn’t the first time the department has fought a Tesla fire.
Rare, but difficult to extinguish
Like laptop computers, many battery electric vehicles are powered by lithium-ion batteries, which have a high energy density for their size. But design flaws, poor build quality, faulty software, or temperatures over 130°F can cause them to burst into flames. Batteries can also be damaged when the temperature drops below 32°.
Once damaged, lithium cells release heat, damaging neighboring cells in what is called thermal runaway, which in turn can burn out. And because the electrodes of the lithium-ion battery cells are close together, they present an increased risk of shorting, starting a fire.
Fortunately, lithium-ion battery fires don’t seem to happen often.
Battery electric vehicles have just a 0.03% chance of igniting, compared to 1.5% for internal combustion engine vehicles, according to study by AutoinsuranceEZ. According to their research, there is a 3.4% fire risk in hybrid electric vehicles, which contain both an internal combustion engine and a high-voltage battery.
However, when EVs ignite, their lithium-ion batteries cause the fire to burn brighter, faster, and require significantly more water to extinguish. According to a CNBC report, a Tesla Model S Plaid that caught fire in 2021 in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania burned so hot it melted the street below.
Other OEMs dealing with battery fires
It was far from Tesla’s only fire.
Two Teslas parked in a garage in San Ramon, California caught fire in December 2020 and destroyed a house. A car was charging overnight when it burst into flames, spreading to the other Tesla. At least six fire engines were needed to put out the fire that broke out in the garage. Tesla knows that fires can be problematic. According to a Tesla Model S manual for first responders, extinguishing a Tesla battery can take up to 24 hours and 8,000 gallons of water “delivered directly to the battery.”
But Tesla isn’t alone in facing the threat of fire from lithium-ion batteries in its battery electric vehicles.
In March, car transporter Felicity Ace sank in the Atlantic Ocean about 250 miles from the cost of the Azores two weeks after it caught fire taking 3,956 Volkswagen vehicles with it, with speculation the blaze was started by lithium-ion batteries.
At the end of 2021, General Motors temporarily halted production of its Chevrolet Bolt EV and Bolt EUV, and recalled those already sold. Their batteries were replaced with newer batteries, considered less likely to ignite. GM restarted production of the Chevrolet Bolt using the new batteries.
But the glut of fires led the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to launch an investigation in April in battery fires that forced the recall of nearly 140,000 vehicles built by GM, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, Stellantis and Volkswagen, all equipped with lithium-ion batteries produced by South Korean supplier LG Energy Solution.
Is a solution coming?
For automakers, the solution seems to be solid state batteries.
Solid-state batteries use much the same underlying chemistry as lithium-ion technology, but rely on a substrate that can be formed from foams or solids, such as ceramics, rather than a chemical suspension. This essentially eliminates the possibility of fire. Nevertheless, they are not expected to be used in electric vehicles until the second half of the decade.
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