NASA research to prevent catastrophic fires in vehicles or space suits in orbit soon is expected to make personal robots, audio gear and other electronics safer on the ground.
Researchers, regulators and some electronics makers say the space agency is developing some of the most promising solutions to keep lithium-ion power packs from overheating and sparking fires. Working with closely held Kulr Technology Corp., the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is developing systems that wedge heat-absorbing carbon-fiber materials and even tiny water reservoirs between the cells to head off blazes.
NASA’s initial goal was to prevent fiery accidents in orbit from lithium-battery malfunctions in space suits. The first modified suits are scheduled to be sent to the international space station in coming months. Future electric planes and unmanned Mars rovers likely will get later versions of the technology.
The fire-prevention designs under development by NASA and Kulr aren’t meant for laptops or smartphones, but they are set to be used in consumer products such as centralized home audio controls and Ubtech Robotics Corp.’s Lynx, a new humanoid robot. Lynx features Amazon.com Inc.’s Alexa digital assistant and is slated to go on sale this summer.
Ubtech, a fast-growing Chinese robot maker, is in the final stages of testing the Lynx robots, which will offer facial recognition abilities and personalized greetings, along with other features available on Amazon’s wi-fi connected Echo speakers. Goti Deng, closely held Ubtech’s chief strategy officer, said the “demands for battery performance are really high,” but “right now Kulr is a star” in finding ways to reduce chances of dangerous overheating.
Ubtech already relies on Kulr to safeguard robots sold by major U.S. retailers such as Best Buy Co. and Costco Wholesale Corp. By early 2018, Mr. Goti said, his company also plans to incorporate more-capable cooling technology in its next-generation robots intended for airports and museums.
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Kulr Chief Executive Michael Mo said the company is far enough along to start assessing commercial applications for products ranging from medical devices to drones to electrical systems on airliners. The company also has signed a wide-ranging marketing deal with Jabil Circuits Inc., a manufacturer of electronic products for customers such as International Business Machines Corp. , HP Inc. and Xerox Corp.
“Battery technology has outpaced thermal-protection technology,” said Keith Cochran, Jabil vice president of global business units, who added Kulr’s technology “is very credible and the products work.” He said he expected Jabil to showcase Kulr’s technology in a line of home audio-control equipment within a few months.
Lithium power packs installed in robots, lights and some appliances are growing more powerful. They pose increasing challenges for fire-suppression systems, particularly for shipments that burst into flames in cargo holds of airplanes. Fires hot enough to melt aluminum fuselages—and sparked or fed by large shipments of lithium batteries—destroyed three large jets over the past decade. Each year dozens of emergencies and diversions prompted by smoldering or flaming laptops in airliner cabins are reported world-wide.
Against this backdrop, NASA’s research is attracting attention from other federal agencies. Battery experts from the Pentagon and the Federal Aviation Administration have requested details of certain laboratory techniques, said Eric Darcy, a top NASA battery expert.
For NASA, which describes Kulr’s approach as “very promising,” having a variety of cooling options is important to ensure safe power in different types of hardware, including portions of the aging space station and solar-arrays under development.
“I don’t think there is anyone else doing the testing that we’re doing,” Mr. Darcy said. Prompted by a pair of high-profile lithium-battery fires on Boeing Co. 787 jetliners in 2013, NASA decided to see if it could reduce the hazards of such malfunctions so “they wouldn’t be catastrophic events” in orbit, Mr. Darcy said.
Kulr’s Mr. Mo and his management team predict they will get a jump on competitors because their technology aims to make batteries only 5% heavier, compared with current technology that adds 15% to 20% in weight.
By encapsulating water in specially treated carbon-fiber based pockets, the company has been able to keep cell temperatures below 158 degrees Fahrenheit even when an adjoining test cell’s temperature climbed to about 1,000 degrees in one 2016 test cited by NASA. Recent lab results have been even more favorable, according to company test summaries.
By Andy Pasztor, click here to read the original article at WSJ.com.