INL boosts battery-testing infrastructure

Idaho National Laboratory Energy Storage Group Lead Eric Dufek talks to reporters about the new chemical storage units at INL’s Nondestructive Battery Evaluation Laboratory on Monday afternoon. The unit allows INL researchers to test lithium-ion batteries in harsh conditions. Taylor Carpenter /

A shaker table sits in the Idaho National Laboratory Nondestructive Battery Evaluation Laboratory on Monday afternoon. The table shakes and vibrates experimental electric car batteries to simulate driving conditions. Taylor Carpenter /

Any next-generation electric car battery design gracing a Ford, Chevrolet or Chrysler in coming years likely will have been tested at Idaho National Laboratory first, thanks to equipment recently added to the lab’s Idaho Falls campus.

Workers at INL’s Nondestructive Battery Evaluation Laboratory on North Boulevard recently gained access to a pair of fireproof chemical storage units that allow batteries to be tested in extreme temperature conditions. Eight employees work at the lab.

The units allow INL to test experimental, fast-charging lithium-ion batteries for electric and hybrid vehicles. U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and U.S. Department of Energy representatives will visit the facility Tuesday.

“We saw (that) this would provide a way to help the path forward with vehicle electrification as fast-charging becomes more necessary on the horizon,” INL Energy Storage Group Lead Eric Dufek said.

The rectangular thick-walled units occupy one corner of the battery evaluation lab. Rated to withstand fire for four hours, they’re traditionally used in various industries, from waste management to food manufacturing, to store hazardous chemicals and materials. INL’s units are outfitted to accommodate battery testing.

Today’s fastest 480-volt electric car battery chargers take about 30 minutes to charge batteries, INL Clean Energy and Transportation Division Director Kev Adjemian said, though automotive manufacturers are trying to design batteries that take only five or 10 minutes to charge.

“In electric vehicles one of the issues in regards to customer acceptance is how long it takes to charge a vehicle,” he said.

Experimental, energy-dense batteries capable of such charge speeds are more fire-prone and more likely to release volatile fumes, which is why storage units are necessary for testing.

“They give DOE a location to do these types of tests without burning a lab or a whole building down,” Adjemian said. “We’re trying to test these extreme conditions in a safe environment.”

Cameras lining the units’ interior walls provide visual access to ongoing experiments, while exhaust vents remove hazardous fumes and floor holes drain water from interior sprinkler systems.

Environmental test chambers, capable of temperatures from minis 70 degrees Celsius to more than 100 degrees Celsius, are wheeled into the units to test batteries in environments not far from the realm of realistic use.

INL’s battery evaluation lab also includes a shaker table to simulate road bumps and vibrations. The lab is unique in DOE’s complex, Adjemian said.

INL tests experimental batteries from other DOE labs and from USCAR, an INL-partnered research consortium that includes Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

After batteries are tested, INL researchers work with industry or lab partners to eliminate vulnerabilities.

“Can the battery and vehicle withstand such high levels of charging? With time what are possible failure mechanisms?” Adjemian said. “We start with the developer to work on potential countermeasures to solve particular problems.”

Batteries powering the Chevrolet Volt and recently released Chevrolet Bolt electric cars were tested at INL in the late 1990s, Dufek said.

Of the roughly 700 batteries tested annually by INL, about 50 to 70 will be car batteries tested in the Nondestructive Battery Evaluation Laboratory.

Though new battery chemistries and manufacturing ideas pop up often, a battery takes around 20 years to develop from the “beaker to the dealership,” Adjemian said, during which time it’ll likely stop in Idaho.

“The reality is every week some professor is saying ‘I invented this thing that will solve everything’ but DOE doesn’t necessarily believe it until Idaho tests it,” Adjemian said.

Reporter Kevin Trevellyan can be reached at 542-6762.