Monday, 22 February 2010

Where Batteries Go to Be Tortured

If something can go wrong with lithium-ion cells, better in the 'abuse lab' than in your car
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—It's known as the "abuse lab."
And with good reason.
At Sandia National Laboratories, scientist purposely crush, overheat, and salt batteries to see how much abuse they can take before exploding. The effort is all in the name of reducing the risk to consumers who use laptops and drive electric cars. WSJ's Stephanie Simon reports.

Behind a 2,000-pound blast door, federal researcher Peter Roth spends his days torturing electric-car batteries. He overcharges them, drives nails into them, presses them between scalding brass plates. He dunks them in salt water, sets them on fire, crushes them, drops them, dissects them. Again and again, he watches them explode.
The goal: To make sure all this mayhem happens in his lab—and not in your car. Because, as Mr. Roth says dryly, "One bad incident can spoil the public's opinion."
Electric cars are about to hit the market en masse: General Motors Co. plans to launch its Chevrolet Volt this fall; Nissan Motor Co.'s Leaf is slated to debut by December; and new gas-electric hybrids are in the works at Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and Volkswagen AG's Audi unit. Even BMW AG has an electric compact in the works. Nearly all are powered by lithium-ion batteries, which pack six times the punch of a standard lead acid car battery and more than twice as much as the nickel-metal-hydride batteries used in hybrids such as the Toyota Prius.
Lithium-ion batteries have been around for years in cellphones, laptops and other consumer electronics. Even on this small scale, the batteries have caused sporadic trouble; several computers have been recalled in recent years after their lithium-ion batteries were found to spontaneously catch fire. Scaling up the technology enough to power a car raises fresh safety and reliability questions.
Shoestring Operation
That's where Mr. Roth comes in. In a windowless warren of small test bays—several singed with the soot from past explosions—Mr. Roth seeks to discover what can go wrong with different types of lithium-ion cells, and under what conditions. His guiding principle? "If you build it, it can fail."

The abuse lab is located at Sandia National Laboratories, in a high-security building mostly used for nuclear research; the reception desk displays a small sign instructing couriers: "All explosives go to Room 1107."
Much of Mr. Roth's research is funded by the Department of Energy, which recently awarded the lab $4.2 million in stimulus money to upgrade equipment. Auto companies and battery makers also pay the lab directly for tests on proprietary technology. "It's our key go-to national lab for abuse tolerance testing," says Ted Miller, a senior manager of energy storage strategy and research at Ford Motor Co.
Mr. Roth's lab for the most part studies lithium-ion batteries—from single cells that can be smaller than a tube of lipstick to full-size automobile battery packs weighing several hundred pounds. Then there are the thin silver pouch batteries, which look fit and trim when they are new but "swell up like a Jiffy-Pop bag when they go bad," Mr. Roth says, pulling out badly charred, misshapen pouches.
He and his research partner, Chris Orendorff, emphasize that they are testing these batteries under worst-case scenarios, often after disabling internal controls. "Then we can develop strategies to mitigate those problems," Mr. Orendorff says. "Knowledge is power."
The lab, whose clients also include the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the U.S. miliary and consumer-electronics manufacturers, relies on an unlikely mix of sophisticated equipment and home-made contraptions for research.
The scientists use a state-of-the-art accelerating rate calorimeter to measure the heat generated by various types of batteries when they begin to overheat and a Fourier transform infrared spectrometer, which can cost about $50,000, to analyze the gases released as a battery breaks down after a catastrophic failure. Thanks to the stimulus funds, the lab will soon get a CT scanner, for peering inside single cells, and a thermal chamber to test how batteries react to extreme temperatures—anything from minus 70 to 200 degrees Celsius.
Yet the researchers rely on an old locomotive relay switch to perform other critical tests, such as the short circuit (a battery is hooked up and the switch is thrown closed, which causes an immediate and intense short circuit). They protect the hydraulic lines on another machine with crumpled tin foil. And their computing center looks like it was built in the 1980s and never updated. "It's a bit of a shoestring operation," Mr. Roth says.

With a shock of white hair, an unruly beard and impish eyes, Mr. Roth, 62 years old, looks every bit the mad scientist as he bounds through the lab reminiscing about disasters he has engineered. In one memorable test a few years back that didn't involve lithium-ion technology, he overcharged a battery made of 48 cells lashed together, then exposed it to sparks. The cells immediately began venting a tremendous cloud of gas and then exploded like fireworks, ricocheting off walls and disintegrating so completely, nothing was left but a thick layer of grit so toxic that cleanup crews had to wear hazmat suits.
His report to the manufacturer was simple, Mr. Roth says: "Back to the drawing board."
As for his test bay? "We put in a steel ceiling after that," he says.
Making an Impact
Overcharging is one of Mr. Roth's standard tests. He has repeatedly found failings in the electronic monitors that are supposed to deflect the current when the battery is full. That can cause overheating—known as "thermal runaway"—and explosions.
Armed with this data, battery manufacturers have developed a backup system of mechanical circuit breakers that interrupt the current flow when the battery's temperature begins to climb to unstable levels.
The Sandia lab also compares the safety of various chemistries used for the positive and negative charge in a lithium-ion battery. Much of this information is confidential, but the researchers say that certain materials are clearly superior in terms of safety and that the industry is shifting in that direction.
"They've made a significant contribution to automotive technology," says Menahem Anderman, president of Advanced Automotive Batteries, a consulting firm in Oregon House, Calif.
Mr. Roth's lab has also dispelled some fears. Manufacturers worried, for instance, that if a car plunged off a bridge, its lithium-ion battery might electrify the water and shock first responders. Mr. Roth tested the scenario and dismissed the concern as unfounded.
Mr. Roth, who plans to retire this spring and turn over the lab to Mr. Orendorff, says that in more than a decade studying battery technology he has seen huge advances in safety and has been impressed by the industry's attentiveness to his research.
So does he plan to buy a car powered by a lithium-ion battery? He hesitates. "I will certainly be inclined to buy one eventually," he says. "But I am disinclined to buy the first of anything." — Ms. Simon is a staff reporter in The Wall Street Journal's Dallas bureau. She can be reached at

What Utilities Have Learned From Smart-Meter Tests...

...And why they aren't putting those lessons to use
Utilities have learned a lot about how smart meters can compel consumers to save electricity. Unfortunately, too often they aren't putting the knowledge to good use.
Smart meters are more precise than traditional meters in that they send readings on electricity usage to utility billing departments throughout the day. Not only do smart meters provide customers with a clearer picture of how they use electricity on a daily basis, they also make it possible for utilities to charge more for power when demand is highest—in the afternoon—and less when usage falls off—at night.
By making variable pricing plans possible, smart meters are expected to play a big role in getting customers to reduce their peak-hour energy consumption, a key goal of utility executives and policy makers. Electricity grids are sized to meet the maximum electricity need, so a drop in peak demand would let utilities operate with fewer expensive power plants, meaning they could provide electricity at a lower cost and with less pollution.
Utilities have run dozens of pilot tests of digital meters and found that people cut power consumption the most when faced with higher peak-hour rates. But utility executives and regulators have been reluctant to implement rate plans that penalize people for too much energy use, fearing that if customers associate smart meters with higher bills, they will stall the technology's advance just as it is gaining traction. Only about 5% of U.S. electric meters are "smart" today, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, but that figure is expected to grow to about one-third in the next five years.
So, many utilities are trying an approach that is less controversial, but also less effective: offering rebates to customers who conserve energy in key periods of the day. By doing things like turning off clothes dryers and adjusting air conditioners on hot summer afternoons, customers earn credits that can reduce their electricity bills.
Preventing Rebellions
"Most CEOs struggle over this issue more than anything else," says Ted Craver, chief executive of Edison International, the Rosemead, Calif., parent of Southern California Edison, which is in the midst of a massive smart-meter rollout. "You could have a real rebellion" if smart meters push up customers' rates, especially if utilities' other capital expenses are increasing, he says.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co., a unit of PG&E Corp., got a taste of the public-relations risk last summer when it installed smart meters in Bakersfield, Calif., as part of a broad upgrade in its Northern California service territory. When customers—who weren't participating in any sort of experimental rate plan—received dramatically higher bills shortly afterward, they blamed the meters for what they assumed was faulty billing. The San Francisco utility investigated and concluded that the meters were functioning properly. It found that the higher bills were simply a case of unfortunate timing: An increase in conventional rates had taken effect just ahead of unseasonably hot temperatures.
"What it told us is that people aren't really knowledgeable about smart meters coming down the pike and they don't pay much attention to rate changes," says Dian Grueneich, a member of the California Public Utilities Commission, which is monitoring the situation. "It told us there needs to be a lot of consumer education" before making big changes.
PG&E now has a voluntary program in which customers agree to pay higher peak rates of 60 cents a kilowatt-hour for no more than 15 days a year, in exchange for a discount of three cents a kilowatt-hour for electricity used at other times. So far some 26,000 customers have signed up.
To date, 16,000 to 18,000 people have participated in more than five dozen pilot tests involving smart meters and experimental rate plans, according to Ahmad Faruqui, a consultant with the Brattle Group who has helped utilities develop some of the programs. He says that while it is sometimes disheartening to see utility executives ignore their own findings, he understands the desire to move slowly until people become comfortable with smart-meter technology.
Pepco Holdings Inc. recently did a pilot test in Washington, D.C., of three rate plans designed to gauge how customers respond to different price signals. One plan pegged the price, which ranged from a penny to 37 cents a kilowatt-hour, to the wholesale cost of electricity. One charged a "critical peak price" of 75 cents a kilowatt-hour during certain hours on a handful of days, and 11 cents per kwh at other times. The final plan gave customers 75 cents for each kilowatt-hour of energy saved and charged 11 cents per kwh for power used.
Results showed that people responded most when threatened with the 75-cent-per-kwh peak pricing. Those customers cut their overall energy consumption between 22% and 34%, depending on whether they also had programmable thermostats that could automatically change temperature settings. Customers offered rebates reduced their usage 9% to 15%—again, with the deeper cuts among those who had smart thermostats.
Despite evidence that sticks are better motivators than carrots, the utility intends to offer rebates in the future in an effort to change behavior. "Our general sense is that consumers would prefer a rate structure with no downside," says Steven Sunderhauf, a program manager for Pepco. "From a purist's standpoint, I may prefer critical peak pricing because it gets the boldest response…but using rebates will help people get comfortable with smart meters."
Offering Protections
In addition to fearing a customer rebellion, utility executives and regulators worry that the introduction of peak pricing for the hottest or coldest days of the year could harm vulnerable members of society. Many experts feel that not enough research has been done to protect those who aren't able to change their electricity usage.
"I'm mindful that an elderly person with medical equipment can't say, 'I'm not going to run the equipment at the 'peak' time,' " says Kevin DelGobbo, a Connecticut utilities commissioner. "We have to be careful with these rate structures."
The same holds true for commercial customers—some may not have the option of cutting usage on weekday afternoons.
Last summer, Connecticut Light & Power Co., a subsidiary of Northeast Utilities Service Co., gave new meters to 3,000 residential and business customers, testing three types of rates. Like other utilities, it found that homes facing the highest peak-hour pricing—$1.60 per kwh at certain times—responded the most, cutting peak use 16% to 23%, depending on whether they had other aids like smart thermostats. Commercial customers, in a similar test, cut their demand far less, only 7%.
That was instructive, says Jessica Brahaney Cain, director of CL&P's smart-grid planning, because it told the utility that many commercial customers don't have the option of cutting usage during times of peak demand. "A restaurant has to use its ovens," she says. "A dentist has to use his drills."
One surprise, says Ms. Cain, was that almost all of the customers who participated in the pilot test reported more satisfaction with the Berlin, Conn., utility than those who didn't. They liked that the meters gave them greater insight into how they use electricity, she says.
CL&P expects to file a plan for mass-meter deployment and new dynamic-pricing plans by the end of March. It plans to offer rebates for conservation, at least in the beginning.
Better Tools
Southern California Edison says it also plans to adopt a rebate strategy by the end of the year, even though it won't have all its meters in place until 2012.
"If customers do nothing, they'll get the same bill they otherwise would get," says Lynda Ziegler, senior vice president for customer service at the Edison International unit. Those that cut peak consumption will get a credit of 75 cents to $1.25 for each kilowatt-hour of reduction. The main concern of regulators, she says, is making sure meter readings are accurate.
The utility chose rebates over penalties partly because a law passed during the California energy crisis a decade ago limits its ability to involuntarily switch people to higher peak-hour pricing plans right now. A new law may allow it after 2013.
But the utility also concluded that it wouldn't be fair to really crank up peak pricing until homeowners have greater access to automation tools such as smart appliances and controllers. In the future, devices will contain computer chips and software so they can go into energy-saving mode in response to a signal sent from the utility or another energy manager that higher prices are kicking in.— Ms. Smith is a Wall Street Journal staff reporter in San Francisco. She can be reached at

Methane levels may see 'runaway' rise, scientists warn

A rapid acceleration may have begun in levels of a gas far more harmful than CO2
By Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor
Monday, 22 February 2010
Atmospheric levels of methane, the greenhouse gas which is much more powerful than carbon dioxide, have risen significantly for the last three years running, scientists will disclose today – leading to fears that a major global-warming "feedback" is beginning to kick in.
For some time there has been concern that the vast amounts of methane, or "natural gas", locked up in the frozen tundra of the Arctic could be released as the permafrost is melted by global warming. This would give a huge further impetus to climate change, an effect sometimes referred to as "the methane time bomb".

This is because methane (CH4) is even more effective at retaining the Sun's heat in the atmosphere than CO2, the main focus of international climate concern for the last two decades. Over a relatively short period, such as 20 years, CH4 has a global warming potential more than 60 times as powerful as CO2, although it decays more quickly.
Now comes the first news that levels of methane in the atmosphere, which began rising in 2007 when an unprecedented heatwave in the Arctic caused a record shrinking of the sea ice, have continued to rise significantly through 2008 and 2009.
Although researchers cannot yet be certain, and there may be non-threatening explanations, there is a fear that rising temperatures may have started to activate the positive feedback mechanism. This would see higher atmospheric levels of the gas producing more warming, which in turn would release more methane, which would produce even further warming, and so on into an uncontrollable "runaway" warming effect. This is believed to have happened at the end of the last Ice Age, causing a very rapid temperature rise in a matter of decades.
The new figures will be revealed this morning at a major two-day conference on greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, taking place at the Royal Society in London. They will be disclosed in a presentation by Professor Euan Nisbet, of Royal Holloway College of the University of London, and Dr Ed Dlugokencky of the Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, which is run by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Both men are leading experts on CH4 in the atmosphere, and Dr Dlugokencky in particular, who is in charge of NOAA's global network of methane monitoring stations, is sometimes referred to as "the keeper of the world's methane". In a presentation on "Global atmospheric methane in 2010: budget, changes and dangers", the two scientists will reveal that, after a decade of near-zero growth, "globally averaged atmospheric methane increased by [approximately] 7ppb (parts per billion) per year during 2007 and 2008."
They go on: "During the first half of 2009, globally averaged atmospheric CH4 was [approximately] 7ppb greater than it was in 2008, suggesting that the increase will continue in 2009. There is the potential for increased CH4 emissions from strong positive climate feedbacks in the Arctic where there are unstable stores of carbon in permafrost ... so the causes of these recent increases must be understood."
Professor Nisbet said at the weekend that the new figures did not necessarily mark a new excursion from the trend. "It may just be a couple of years of high growth, and it may drop back to what it was," he said. "But there is a concern that things are beginning to change towards renewed growth from feedbacks."
The product of biological activity by microbes, usually in decaying vegetation or other organic matter, "natural gas" is emitted from natural sources and human activities. Wetlands may give off up to a third of the total amount produced. But large amounts are also released from the production of gas for fuel, and also from agriculture, including the production of rice in paddy fields and the belches of cows as they chew the cud (which is known as "bovine eructation"). However, methane breaks down and disappears from the atmosphere quite quickly, and until recently it was thought that the Earth's methane "budget" was more or less in balance.
Global atmospheric levels of the gas now stand at about 1,790 parts per billion. They began to be measured in 1984, when they stood at about 1,630ppb, and were steadily rising. It was thought that this was due to the Russian gas industry, which before the collapse of the Soviet Union was affected by enormous leaks.
After 1991, substantial amounts were invested in stopping the leaks by a privatised Russian gas industry, and the methane rise slowed.
Methane in the atmosphere: The recent rise
Many climate scientists think that frozen Arctic tundra, like this at Sermermiut in Greenland, is a ticking time bomb in terms of global warming, because it holds vast amounts of methane, an immensely potent greenhouse gas. Over thousands of years the methane has accumulated under the ground at northern latitudes all around the world, and has effectively been taken out of circulation by the permafrost acting as an impermeable lid. But as the permafrost begins to melt in rising temperatures, the lid may open – with potentially catastrophic results.

Transport for London unveils UK's largest hydrogen fuel cell

New technology part of wide-ranging green building makeover.
Cath Everett, BusinessGreen, Monday 22 February 2010 12.28 GMT
Transport for London (TfL) hopes to cut its carbon emissions by 40 per cent and save £90,000 per annum on utility bills with a newly unveiled green power plant at its head office that includes the UK's largest hydrogen fuel cell.
TfL and the London Development Agency (LDA), which is housed in the same building, also announced last week that they plan to sign up to the 10:10 energy efficiency campaign from this April.
As a result, they have committed to reduce carbon emissions by a further 10 per cent and cut energy bills by £400,000 over the next financial year.
The £2.4m combined heat and power plant, which was unveiled late last week, is located at TfL's Palestra building in Southwark and was implemented as part of a major green retrofit.
The plant is expected to supply all the facility's power needs at off-peak times and 25 per cent of requirements during peak hours.
Waste heat will also be pumped into a unit on the roof to ensure the building keeps cool and supplement its six existing electric chillers.
The hydrogen fuel cell, which was funded out of TfL's £25m Climate Change Fund, will likewise provide electricity, heat and cooling and provide the office's hot water supply.
Speaking at the opening of the new facilities, Kit Malthouse, deputy mayor of London and chairman of the London Hydrogen Partnership, said: "Zero-polluting hydrogen fuel has the potential to radically transform the way we power our city to create a more pleasant environment. This isn't a fuel of the future but is available right now."
He added that "to catalyse its use more widely", the technology's benefits would be promoted to visitors and passers-by via a permanent multimedia exhibition display fuelled by energy generated on the site.
In a bid to meet its 10:10 commitments, TfL likewise plans to cut general waste and paper consumption at its 32 sites and to retrofit 22 of them in accordance with the Building Energy Efficiency Programme.
Solar panels will be introduced to heat water, while green roofs will be installed to boost insulation, absorb rainwater and improve local ecology.
The deployment of new building management software is also planned to control temperature, heating and cooling systems more effectively, while new energy management and enhanced automated meter reading systems will be similarly installed.
Low-condensing NOx boilers will replace old ones in three buildings and 2,500 lights will be swapped for energy-efficient replacements. About 1,000 halogen lamps will likewise be replaced with low-energy LED lights that should cut energy consumption by 90 per cent and improve lamp life by 25 times.
The company said that alongside the building improvements, a staff awareness programme will be launched from April to encourage personnel to cut their energy consumption.
In broader terms, the organisation plans to spend £23m on green programmes over the next year to help Londoners reduce their carbon emissions. For example, TfL is planning to introduce a public cycle hire scheme in the capital later this year and also aims to add 300 new diesel-electric hybrid buses to its current fleet of 56 by March 2011, after which time all new additions will have to be hybrids.