What Happens During Battery Thermal Runaway?
As the world continues to move towards a more sustainable future, so does the popularity of electric vehicles. While the benefits of electric vehicles are many, one of the key challenges is ensuring that the battery packs used in these vehicles are safe and reliable. In the context of battery packs, thermal runaway stands out as an inherent hazard that can evoke profoundly negative media attention and public concern.
During a thermal runaway event, undesired exothermic side reactions occur. These reactions are the response of the battery components exposure to extreme operating conditions, including but not limited to: high operating temperatures, fast charging, cell fractures by external objects, and internal short circuits.
Just like the domino effect, a single cell entering thermal runaway can easily spread to the surrounding cells and cause fires and explosions in the whole pack. This is known as thermal runaway propagation.
How to Avoid Battery Thermal Runaway
The question arises, how can you can safeguard your cell from entering thermal runaway? Some common triggers for thermal runaway include excessive heating, electrical faults such as short circuits and nail penetration or even a faulty cell. Therefore, the goal should not be to never have a cell enter thermal runaway but rather to design a battery pack that can withstand a cell entering thermal runaway without causing the thermal runaway to propagate to the rest of the pack.
To effectively tackle this challenge, it is critical to develop precise models capable of predicting and mitigating thermal runaway propagation in battery packs. Well-designed battery pack models ensure appropriate cooling systems and safety features are engineered to minimize the risk of thermal runaway. Additionally, these models can be used to develop early warning systems that can detect when a pack is starting to overheat.
Experimental Costs of Testing Thermal Runaway
Experimentally analyzing thermal runaway propagation in lithium-ion battery cells and packs is ideal, but requires significant resources of both time and money. The process will need designing and constructing different test scenarios and equipment, not to mention the experimental condition variations and the safety risks associated with intentionally inducing such events. Just to test a simple lithium-ion battery pack prototype for thermal runaway propagation could cost nearly $100k per test scenario. What’s more is that thermal runaway propagation is an inherently complex event. It can be influenced by a wide range of factors, such as overcharging, overheating, internal shorting, and nail penetration. It is nearly impossible to replicate all the real-world scenarios in a laboratory setting. In the meantime, cell manufacturers may experience major delays in the release schedule of their final product, whether it is an electric vehicle, an electrical vertical takeoff and landing vehicles (eVTOLs), or others due to the fact that physical testing is often conducted at the late stages of the development cycle.
History of Simulating Thermal Runaway Propagation with GT-SUITE
Cell and pack manufacturers have diligently turned their attention to computer simulation and modeling techniques to analyze thermal runaway propagation. Many cell manufacturers look to 3D computer aided engineering (CAE) simulation to avoid the challenges associated with experimental physical testing of thermal runaway propagation. The components for modeling thermal runaway propagation include:
- Pre-runaway battery model
- Thermal runaway trigger
- Cell-level thermal runaway model
- Heat transfer model
Using 3D CAE serves as an exemplary simulation and modeling technique and is known to provide intricate details regarding thermal runaway propagation. However, this method is known for its considerable time requirement and model renderings that are challenging to implement as well as the difficultly to test numerous “what if” scenarios on.
In a previous blog, we demonstrated how the simulation platform GT-SUITE was employed to model the propagation effect of thermal runaway in a small battery module. GT-SUITE provides a 1D CAE solution that offers faster running models than the common 3D CAE models. We showcased how an equivalent circuit model can be used as the pre-runaway battery model. Simple external heating such as the thermal runaway trigger, a rule-based model for the cell-level thermal runaway model, and 1D thermal networks were used for the heat transfer model. Since then, GT-SUITE has been prolifically used by many battery pack designers not only to predict lithium-ion battery performance metrics but also to simulate the thermal runaway propagation and gain invaluable insights into the behavior of their battery packs under different conditions.
Cell thermal runaway events vary greatly based on the events leading to thermal runaway. For instance, how quickly the cells were heated to a runaway state will affect the mass of vent gases evolved and their composition. This becomes important as the commonly used rule-based models are not able to capture these detailed values. Within GT-SUITE’s battery modeling platform GT-AutoLion, the latest GT-SUITE development includes a unique 1D&3D multi-physics model for thermal runaway propagation. This modeling approach not only provides fast-running models but also demonstrates strong physics.
Cell-level Thermal Runaway Propagation Enabled by P2D Electrochemical Modeling Together with Chemical Reactions
The first step for modeling a thermal runaway propagation is to have a pre-runaway model. More commonly, equivalent circuit models (ECMs) have been used as pre-runaway models to predict the performance of lithium-ion batteries. However, there are multiple shortcomings with this approach as they cannot fully capture the complex electrochemical reactions occurring within a battery cell.
To address these limitations, we will use GT-AutoLion, which is based on a pseudo-two-dimensional (P2D) electrochemical modeling, to calibrate the pre-runaway lithium-ion battery performance, voltage, and heat generation during a normal operation leading up to a thermal runaway event. Using Gamma Technologies’ physics-based modeling, GT-SUITE users will now have access to more meaningful results while running different thermal runaway propagation scenarios.
In addition to the above capabilities, GT-AutoLion can have user-defined chemical side reactions for thermal runaway propagation modeling. In a use-case based on an article by Feng et al., we modeled the thermal runaway reactions based on couple of reactions happening in a lithium-ion battery cell:
- Solid electrolyte interphase (SEI) decomposition
- Anode – electrolyte interface
- Separator melting
- Cathode decomposition (2 reactions)
- Electrolyte vaporization and degradation
The cell-level thermal runaway model we developed by utilizing the new capabilities of GT-AutoLion shows an excellent match with the findings documented in the literature. Below are some of the results that indicate the temperature rise and reactant concentrations for the cell entering the thermal runaway.
Simulating a Module-Level Thermal Runaway Propagation
Using a simple battery module consisting of 20 cells in a series, with fins in between the cells, that are connected to a cold plate to provide cooling. The GEM3D tool in GT-SUITE was used to convert the CAD components to a finite element mesh for the cells, fins, and cold plate material. The model also had a flow volume that represented the air inside the module around the battery cells and was further connected to a burner where combustion reactions were defined. This would potentially be the combustion of chemicals that are released upon cells entering the thermal runaway.
Using GT solutions, we have a strong and fast-running model in which any cell in the module can be selected as the “trigger” cell by applying an external heat until a certain trigger temperature is reached. For this example, thermal runaway was initiated in the center cell (through simple heating and vent gases which were combusted in the burner).
Thermal Runaway Case Studies
Two case studies, using GT solutions, were carried out to observe the battery pack behavior during thermal runaway propagation: (i) without any coolant flow in the cold plate and (ii) with coolant flow of 2kg/s in at 60 °C. Building this model took just a few hours from start to finish.
The 12-minute thermal runaway simulation took about 2 hours to calculate, including thermal, electrical, chemical, and flow physics.
The model results shown in the figures below indicate that when there is no coolant flow in the cold plate, case (i), every cell entered the thermal runaway, one after another. Starting from the center cell and propagating to neighboring cells until all the cells reached high temperatures of 600 to 700 °C. If this were a physical test, the pack would have needed to be re-designed and re-tested! But since no real battery modules were destroyed in this virtual environment, this simulation could now be repeated under different conditions.
Consider the scenario wherein a battery pack is equipped with a coolant flow configuration as delineated in case (ii). As indicated in the figures below, it can be observed that certain cells, primarily the adjacent cells positioned in the middle of the pack, may still undergo thermal runaway. Yet such an occurrence was confined to the limited number of cells located at the center, meaning that the battery pack would not be set on fire.
To see a full tutorial of building models for thermal runaway propagation using GT-SUITE and GT-AutoLion, watch this video here!
Learn More About our Battery Thermal Runaway Solutions
Lithium-ion batteries can experience thermal runaway from a variety of trigger events. Propagation of a thermal runaway event to other cells in the battery pack should be avoided for a safe pack design, but repeated physical testing is expensive and poses significant challenges. GT-SUITE offers a fast-running simulation approach to model this event, combining the electrical, chemical, thermal, and flow domains into a single model. This innovative 1D & 3D multiphysics model enables accurate prediction of the cell heat release under different operating conditions which allows different thermal runaway mitigation strategies to be simulated.
If you’d like to learn more or are interested in trying GT-SUITE and GT-AutoLion to virtually test a battery pack for thermal runaway propagation, view this webpage here. To speak with a GT expert, contact us here!