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GM Battery Lab Explosion Sparks Fire at Michigan Test Center

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GM Lithium-Battery Lab Explosion Injures 2, Fire Department Says
General Motors Co. world headquarters in Detroit. Photographer: Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg

April 11 (Bloomberg) -- General Motors Co. said chemical gases from an experimental battery unrelated to the Chevrolet Volt plug-in car ignited at a research facility near its Detroit headquarters, resulting in one person being hospitalized.

The explosion occurred about 8:45 a.m. at GM’s technical center in Warren, Michigan, Greg Martin, a GM spokesman, said in a statement. While the Warren fire department originally said two people were sent to an area hospital, GM later said in the statement that only one person was hospitalized after five people were evaluated by medical personnel.

GM characterized the testing of the prototype battery as “extreme” and said it had no connection with any of its production vehicles.

“When you have high-energy density, whether it’s in gasoline or diesel fuel or batteries or whatever, you’re going to have potential problems,” David Cole, chairman emeritus for the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said in an interview. “When you’re developing new technologies and trying to improve batteries, this is sort of par for the course.”

The explosion comes as GM seeks to reassure consumers about the safety of the Volt, which uses lithium-ion batteries. Volt sales were hurt after a U.S. investigation into battery fires was announced in November. The U.S. closed the probe in January, saying the Volt and other electric vehicles pose no more fire risk than other cars.

‘Not Positive’

“The headlines are not positive for lithium-ion and General Motors,” Dennis Virag, president of Automotive Consulting Group in Ann Arbor, said in a telephone interview. “It does bring up the subject of the dangers associated with batteries.”

While GM emphasized the battery fire wasn’t related to the Volt, Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst with Edmunds.com, said in an e-mail that some will see a connection.

“Some critics will use this story to bring back to life the investigation into Chevy Volt fires from earlier this year,” she said. “And while this incident deserves some scrutiny -- especially since workers were hurt -- the fact is that this is the reason why new car technology undergoes rigorous testing, to try to ensure that episodes like this don’t happen on the road.”

Volt Sales Target

The Warren center is where GM, the world’s largest automaker, developed the Volt and researches electric-vehicle batteries.

The automaker aims to boost sales of the $39,000 Volt to more than 3,000 a month, Chief Executive Officer Dan Akerson said in an interview last week with Bloomberg Radio scheduled for broadcast next month. The best month of U.S. sales of the Volt so far was 2,289 in March.

“It seems like we’ve sustained ourselves through this difficult period,” Akerson said. “We hope to get up to 3,000-plus in the coming months and are certainly positioning it.”

GM said last week that Volt production will resume April 16, a week earlier than planned following March’s sales improvement. The automaker had said it would halt production in early March after selling 1,023 Volts in February and 603 in January, below the rate needed to meet Akerson’s goal of 45,000 deliveries in the U.S. this year.

During today’s test, gases from the battery cells being test were released and ignited inside an enclosed chamber while the battery remained intact, GM said the statement. Employees in the building were evacuated, the company said.

The automaker’s alternative energy center, part of the Warren complex, will open tomorrow except for the battery lab and adjacent offices, GM said.

GM rose 1.3 percent to $24.03 at the close in New York.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tim Higgins in Southfield, Michigan at thiggins21@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jamie Butters at jbutters@bloomberg.net

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