Sandia LabNews

Stimulus funds at work in the Battery Abuse Testing Laboratory


Sandia’s Battery Abuse Testing Laboratory is a center of mayhem and destruction on a good day, and it’s about to get even better. The nation’s go-to center for battery testing was built in 1991, and since then has conducted critical scientific studies to evaluate the safety of thousands of batteries, including 12 years of testing for the FreedomCAR program and the US Advanced Battery Consortium.

The one-of-a-kind facility analyzes performance under any number of abuse scenarios batteries might face in the real world, and it’s getting a $4.2 million renovation. The overhaul will further the lab’s capabilities as part of a national stimulus package to develop low-cost batteries for electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. The funds are being used to update test bays, data acquisition systems, and laboratory space, and additional staff members have been hired to meet the growing demand for Sandia’s battery safety expertise.

A MAN, A PLAN — Chris Orendorff, team lead for the Battery Abuse Testing Lab, looks over plans for the BATLab remodeling project. He says the streamlined bays and new additions will greatly increase the lab’s capabilities and throughput. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

“This will bring our capabilities up to the point where we can test larger batteries that are going to be relevant to the electric vehicle market, and move up to batteries that will be used in plug-in hybrid electric vehicles,” says Chris Orendorff (2546), team lead for the Battery Abuse Testing Lab. “We’ll have the capability to test batteries in the 5- to 15-kilowatt-hour range, which we’ve never done before. This scale of testing is critical to the deployment of electric vehicles that are needed to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.”

Developing capabilities in clean energy

During a visit to Sandia in November 2009, Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman announced the Battery Abuse Testing Lab funding as part of a $104.7 million stimulus package. The goal of the package is to further develop the nation’s efforts in clean energy and efficient technologies across seven DOE national labs. Sandia’s portion is paying for much-needed upgrades while supporting several new lab positions and sustaining about 50 construction, architectural, and engineering jobs.

"This has been a great way to do our part in putting people in the community to work and keep them working," says Charles Tomlin (4827), construction manager for the project. "We’ve worked with 11 architects and engineers and about 30 to 40 construction contractors and vendors, and we expect to be done with construction three months ahead of schedule."

The upgrades include an X-ray computerized tomography system that will generate 3-D images to allow researchers to conduct failure analysis without doing physical analysis, which can be destructive. The lab’s battery calorimetry capabilities will be the world’s largest and will include six accelerating rate calorimeters (ARCs), three isothermal battery calorimeters, one microcalorimeter, and one differential scanning calorimeter, all of which will be consolidated and housed in the new facility. New spectrometers and laser diagnostics for gas measurements, upgrades to the scrubber system, and additional battery cyclers, supporting higher-energy batteries, are also on the lab’s roster of new equipment.

“Chris and his team are already internationally recognized for their work. The recapitalization will allow us to sustain that leadership position in battery safety research and continue to develop new diagnostic techniques that are needed by domestic automotive manufacturers and their battery suppliers,” says Tom Wunsch (2546), manager of Sandia’s battery research efforts.

Need for upgrades readily apparent

Being the nation’s leading battery abuse testing center for the past two decades has taken its toll. Inside the 2,000-pound blast doors, the need for upgrades is readily apparent. The test bays bear witness to the years of battery abuse testing, which can result in smoke, fires, and violent decomposition events. Much of the equipment is original and needs to be modernized and upgraded to meet the nation’s growing energy storage needs.

The remodeled bays are completely stripped clean, coated in an epoxy paint to make clean-up easier, with new explosion-proof lights and a new CO2 fire suppression system that can be manually or automatically engaged to quickly bring any large fires under control.

“In addition to the fire suppression system, we have moved all of the live power out of the test bays, except for the temporary power required for any given test. This allows us to safely cut power to the unit [being tested] should safety concerns warrant,” says Bill Averill (2546), who oversees day-to-day operations of the lab while providing technical battery testing support.

New data acquisition systems will ensure a much more precise readout of results. The new systems will also help with efficiency, reducing set-up time by as much as a day, which lab leaders say will increase throughput by a factor of six. “The bays will be hard-wired and ready to go, so we can bring in batteries, connect them to the testers, and start testing,” says Chris. “We can also run two tests simultaneously, which we’ve never been able to do before. These kinds of streamlined test capabilities will help expand our customer base, increase throughput for the lab, and will enable us to provide more support for industry.”

Because much of the battery lab’s testing is done for external clients, the area outside the control room will have two new 42-inch monitors so visitors can watch the test from outside the control area.

American jobs, American equipment

Although the lab is unmistakably a construction zone, testing is still being conducted in half the lab while the other half is overhauled. Construction crews are there from early morning until the early afternoon, at which time the laboratory team sets up and conducts tests.

Construction started during the 2010 winter shutdown, with completion scheduled for September 2012, but the work will likely be complete in June 2011, and Chris anticipates that the lab will be fully operational by March 2012.

“Because these are Recovery Act funds, we realize the importance of trying to get this spent on American jobs and American equipment. We are doing everything we can to get that done as quickly and responsibly as possible,” Chris says. About half of the equipment funds were spent within six months of beginning the project. “Getting this money out into the economy is one of the DOE’s priorities, and we’ve worked pretty hard to do that.”