A well-designed thermal management system is critical to the life and performance of electric-drive vehicles (EDVs), hybrids (HEVs), plug-in hybrids (PHEVs), and all-electric vehicles (EVs). Temperature and temperature uniformity both significantly affect the performance, lifespan, and safety of vehicle energy storage devices. NREL evaluates electrical and thermal performance of battery cells, modules, and packs, full energy storage systems, and the interaction of these systems with other vehicle components. The lab's performance assessments factor in the design of the thermal management system, the thermal behavior of the cell, battery lifespan, and safety of the energy storage system, as well as full integration into a vehicle.

NREL engineers use their Isothermal Battery Calorimeter to examine the negative effects of cold temperatures on battery power and capacity. (Image by Dennis Schroeder)

The lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries found in most of today's electric-drive vehicles are smaller and more lightweight than previous nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) technology, but they are also more sensitive to overheating, overcharging, and the extreme spikes in temperature known as thermal runaway. High temperatures diminish battery life and increase their replacement costs, while low temperatures decrease battery power and capacity, all of which impact vehicle range, performance, and affordability.

NREL's research is focused on reducing thermal barriers to achieve more uniform temperatures. It uses its Isothermal Battery Calorimeters to make the precise thermal measurements needed for much of this research. Calorimeter readings are paired with thermal imaging of batteries using infrared cameras to evaluate battery temperature distribution.

In addition, NREL is working with industry to develop computer-aided engineering software tools to optimize thermal management of batteries. NREL's analysis for the U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium (USABC) show that optimized thermal management can increase battery power by more than 10%.

Without proper thermal management, an EDV battery can last more than 10 years in a temperate climate, like in Minnesota, but only 7 years in a hot climate, such as in Arizona. In extreme instances, battery overheating can even pose safety hazards, including fires.

Maintaining desired temperature ranges is critical for optimizing EDV battery storage capacity, lifespan, and performance, and eventually impacts cost and consumer acceptance. NREL's research focuses on achieving more uniform temperatures while a vehicle is in motion and actively generating heat, as well as when it is parked and exposed to ambient temperatures over prolonged periods of time.

Most energy storage systems deliver maximum performance at higher temperatures. However, this extreme heat can overload systems and create dangerous conditions. NREL has invented a device that emulates internal short circuits in batteries to better understand how to prevent future failures and related hazards.

For more information, contact Matthew Keyser at 203-275-3876 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.