7 on Your Side: Bay Area researchers find ways to stop lithium batteries from exploding

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A San Leandro woman's life was changed forever after her grandson's toy car exploded while the battery was charging, setting fire to her home, giving her smoke inhalation and destroying her possessions. Stanford researchers may have a way to prevent similar events from happening again. (KGO-TV)

For months 7 on Your Side has been reporting on the dangers of lithium batteries. They've exploded without warning in some hoverboards, smartphones, laptops and E-cigarettes.

RELATED: 7 on Your Side speaks with Cal engineer on making lithium batteries safer

Two big breakthroughs from Bay Area scientists could make them safe.

Cinders crunch under Kathy Galvan's feet. "This is the room where it happened in," she said.

ABC7 News was at her San Leandro home in November after flames swept through it. "Everything's gone," she said. "Everything's gone."

It all started with a child's toy.

"Why would you sell a product if you knew there was even a chance that this would happen," Galvan asked.

Somewhere in the charged debris is a remote control toy car. Kathy's grandson was charging the battery when it burst into flames.

"Just a little thing and it caught so fast," Galvan recalled.

It was a lithium polymer battery similar to ones that have exploded in some models of Samsung phones and hoverboards.

"There are defects that we cannot predict," said Stanford Professor Zhenan Bao.

Just weeks ago Bao came out with a breakthrough solution, her invention shuts down a battery before it gets hot enough to explode.

A metallic film conducts electricity, turning on an LED light, but if Bao blows hot air onto it, the metal expands so it stops conducting electricity. The LED light goes off and the battery shuts down before it can explode.

"Our main goal is to find new materials for batteries," said Stanford doctoral student Austin Sendeck. "Lithium Ion Batteries that can make them safer."

Across campus, Sendek made another discovery. "It's going to be much more safe, much less likely to blow up," he said.

Sendek's team is trying to find a substitute for the flammable liquid that can make lithium batteries explode.

Scientists identified 12,000 materials that might work. Trying them could take decades and millions of dollars. So Sendek invented an algorithm that narrowed it down to just 20 materials. His team will now try them in real batteries.

"We invented new ideas," said Bao. "But we still need companies to commercialize it."

"You're looking at a decade before they're made on a large scale," said Sendek.

It's too late for Galvan's family. "We're not together anymore," she said.

Everything's gone. The family is scattered, living with friends.

Galvan is still coughing from the smoke, so thick she was lucky to find her way out of the fire.

"It's something you always think is going to happen to somebody else," Galvin added. "Be warned. Be scared. Be very scared."

RELATED: 7 on Your Side reveals how to properly store batteries

The Rechargeable Battery Association says it has spent billions on research to make the batteries safer and the Consumer Product Safety Commission is exploring possible safety standards that could force companies to adopt inventions like the ones at Stanford.

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