PLYMOUTH, Mich.—Demand for lithium-ion batteries is poised for exponential growth as sustainable technologies continue to gain traction in a number of markets including automotive, transportation, electronics, agriculture, mining and construction.
Freudenberg Sealing Technologies' latest investment is helping it prepare for that boom.
FST expanded the material testing capabilities at its Central Laboratory in Plymouth, adding specially designed spaces, upgraded safety equipment and access to important chemicals and solutions. The expansion allows the company to test the performance and compatibility of materials—rubber, elastomers and thermoplastics—used to safely seal and maintain lithium-ion batteries.
F. Joseph Walker, director of research and development for FST in the Americas, said the expansion not only gives customers more robust testing options, it provides new insights.
"What we can now offer customers is design security, based on scientific data," Walker said in a statement. "… Previous efforts have been conducted to determine the impact of materials on the electrolyte. This work focuses upon the impact the electrolyte has on the materials."
The heart of FST's recent investment is a specially designed Isolation and Containment Chamber (IsoC). The IsoC—a two-chambered glass and steel enclosure—adds a layer of safety to the tests conducted with the lithium electrolytic solutions found in lithium-ion battery cells. FST, in describing the "very aggressive" solutions, noted that they "are volatile, toxic and flammable when exposed to oxygen and ambient air moisture."
Technicians and chemists involved in the testing also are equipped with head-to-toe protective gear and special respirators; non-reactive, nickel-based immersion vessels; and a safety monitoring and alarm system that can detect spills, leakage, gas formation or other hazards.
New technology also allows laboratory chemists to monitor the immersion samples remotely at any time from anywhere using a laptop computer, phone or tablet.
Two electrolytic solutions are used in the testing—one commonly found in the lithium-ion batteries and one developed as a control. Families of materials developed by FST will be tested first and commercially available materials used in the batteries will be examined next.
Tests, such as those FST plans to conduct, not only require sophisticated safety equipment, they're expensive as well. For instance, the electrolytic solutions used in the testing cost several thousand dollars a gallon, FST said. Nonetheless, the company sees it as money well-spent.
"We have taken this proactive step on behalf of our customers and in response to a growing use of lithium-ion batteries in diverse applications," Walker said.
While the company did not disclose the total cost for expansion, it noted in a March 16 news release that the testing facility and capabilities required a "six-figure investment." The move puts FST in a testing arena where few reside.
"The risks associated with testing lithium-ion battery materials exposed to electrolytic solutions are real, and the cost of controlling them is one of the reasons only a handful of universities are the only other organizations to conduct such testing," FST said.