KU researcher studying to make safer lithium-ion batteries, which sometimes explode

photo by: Contributed photo

University of Kansas researcher Huazhen Fang (right) and an unnamed doctoral student perform battery tests. Fang received a $500,000 grant to study lithium-ion batteries.

Last week in a Chinese parking garage, a Tesla Model S seemed to spontaneously combust — a spectacle that was caught on camera.

The car briefly emitted white smoke before exploding into flames, even though the car was off and unoccupied, according to footage shown on CNN.

While Tesla plans to investigate what caused the explosion, Huazhen Fang, an assistant professor for KU’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, thinks he knows what happened: The car’s lithium-ion battery overheated and caused it to explode.

“It was horrifying,” Fang said of the footage.

But Fang, along with the help of student researchers, hopes to find a way to make those batteries safer by studying them with a five-year $500,000 grant he recently received from the National Science Foundation.

Although these batteries are found in most electronic gadgets used throughout the world, they can sometimes be dangerous, Fang said. The Tesla car is just one example, but there are several others, such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 cellphones that were exploding in people’s pockets in 2017.

“They are not safe enough nowadays,” Fang said. “You can read numerous news articles of accidents from lithium-ion batteries.”

The batteries are used frequently because of they have high energy and power abilities and long charge life compared with other types of batteries, Fang said. But they can sometimes explode because the lithium metal can cause “thermal runaway,” which is an uncontrolled increase of temperature within the battery to the point of destruction.

Fang’s study will focus on the heat within the battery and learn how the thermal runaway occurs. Then, Fang hopes to develop technology to help monitor the battery’s interior heat to help prevent the runaway from occurring.

Monitoring the interior of the battery is important, because current sensors can only monitor the heat on the outside of the batteries, Fang said.

“We want to measure the temperature inside the battery pack, which is much more intense than at the surface and more relevant to the potential (danger),” he said.

If all goes according to plan, Fang could put an end to the battery explosions.

“That’s our goal,” he said. “We want to significantly improve the safety of lithium-ion batteries by combining the understanding of thermal physics and data.”

Contact Dylan Lysen

Have a story idea, news or information to share? Contact University of Kansas, higher education, state government reporter Dylan Lysen:


Welcome to the new LJWorld.com. Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.