Detroit Encore Entrepreneurs Blaze New Trail With LithFire-X
Gerry Flood has spent his career pioneering and selling preparedness. For 20 years, he was a salesman for AAA. He also started his own metro Detroit-based company, called CeaseFire, which manufactured automatic fire suppression products.
CeaseFire garnered such a reputation for expertise that when ValuJet flight 592 crashed in the Everglades in 1996 after a fire broke out in the cargo area of the plane, killing all 110 passengers, CeaseFire was the only private company invited to testify before a Congressional inquiry into the accident. Flood eventually sold his company to a group of investors, expecting to use the proceeds to fund his retirement.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. CeaseFire’s buyers mismanaged the business into the ground. In his mid-70s, Flood, an easily smiling Air Force veteran who’s quick with a joke, suddenly found himself wondering what he should do next.
In 2011, Flood enrolled in Detroit’s TechTown business incubator with the idea of starting a new business selling fire suppression systems for clothes dryers. During a pitch contest at a chamber of commerce meeting, Flood recognized a fellow TechTown founder named Ron Butler.
Butler had retired after 22 years with the Detroit Fire Department, fighting fires out of Engine Co. 58, a beleaguered fire house in a particularly bleak part of Detroit’s East Side. Butler, who holds a master’s degree in instructional systems design from Wayne State University and is a doctoral candidate in human and organizational performance improvement, is only in his 40s, but he too was in search of a new business venture. His pitch that night was for an emergency response company he had recently started.
Flood and Butler began chatting and soon realized they shared an abiding interest in suppressing fire. It was just days after a couple of Chevy Volt battery packs had caught fire in simulated crash tests, eventually sparking a federal investigation into the safety of Chevrolet’s flagship electric vehicle.
“It was huge on the news,” Butler recalls. “There was lots of money invested by GM in electric batteries, but [the fires were] important to the whole industry.”
“I said, ‘Wait a minute. This vehicle self-ignites?’” Flood adds. “We just started talking about it and we realized we had a common language.” It was during that conversation that the seeds were planted for their startup, which harnesses the kind of ingenuity that made the Motor City famous to address a key threat to the emerging market for electric vehicles. One could argue that perhaps only these two encore entrepreneurs had the right combination of background, skills, and timing to establish a company like LithFire-X.
In 2012, the new partners started LithFire-X, a startup developing fire suppression systems for lithium-ion batteries. LithFire-X also advises a variety of U.S. manufacturers on safety concerns related to medical devices, notebook computers, and other products powered by lithium-ion batteries.
The consulting part of LithFire’s business, which helps generate revenue for the business, stemmed from some investigative market research Flood did.
He started with Chevy dealerships first, then any dealership that sold hybrid-electric vehicles. What they were doing to protect customers from battery fires, he asked each dealership. The answer? Not much.
Butler and Flood emphasize that they don’t fault the industry for not knowing what it didn’t know. “It was new to them as well,” Butler says. “It’s part of the learning curve. We realized the industry is laser-focused on making excellent batteries, and they didn’t consider the possible downside.”
“I’d been in the hospital, and I realized that all these laptops, beds, monitors, phones, and just about everything else had battery packs,” Flood points out. “Lots of things are powered by lithium-ion batteries, and, especially in a hospital, that could be a big problem.”
In fact, according to Frost and Sullivan, as of 2012, the global market for lithium ion batteries is near $11.7 billion, a number that is expected to double by 2016. When a lithium-ion battery catches fire, the ensuing publicity can also generate a lot of heat. In October, the driver of a Tesla S ran over a metal object that caused the vehicle’s lithium-ion battery pack to erupt in flames. A video of the fire went viral, causing the company’s stock prices to plummet.
Despite the potential for disaster, Flood and Butler say, their warnings to manufacturers about lithium battery hazards often weren’t welcomed.
“As we moved forward, it was almost like they stuck their heads in the sand,” Butler says. “They’d rather not hear from you, because once they hear, they’re locked in on the problem. But we’re not in business to demonize the industry. We’re trying to make sure people remain safe.”
The problem, according to Butler and Flood, is “thermal runaway,” a significant increase in battery temperature that creates conditions where the temperature keeps escalating. The anodes in lithium-ion batteries start breaking down when temperatures exceed 80 degrees Celsius. At 110 degrees, flammable hydrocarbon is released. Polymer electrodes start short circuiting at 135 degrees. Then, as heat and pressure grow, an open flame is released.
There are multiple causes for these fires, including excessive heat, mechanical failure, electrical failure, design flaws, and overcharging. The batteries themselves contain flammable liquids. Add electricity to an already combustible environment, and the results can be disastrous.
Though there are currently no formal safety standards in place specifically for lithium-ion batteries, most manufacturers, shippers, testers, and warehousers recommend hand-held extinguishers as a means to fight lithium-ion battery fires. LithFire-X says hand-held extinguishers should be considered a last resort, and instead the company has developed automatic fire suppression solutions that don’t require human intervention. This includes a specialized shipping box for large-format lithium-ion battery packs like those used in EVs and hybrids.
The company’s intellectual property lies in the material that lines the inside of the box. Once the temperature reaches 240 degrees, the material activates and the box closes itself, preventing the flames from escaping. The goal, at least initially, is to contain the fire because extinguishing lithium-ion fires is often a complicated task.
The LithFire-X box can also be used to transport damaged or defective batteries to a recycling facility. “We consider extinguishment to be different from suppression,” Butler explains. “We do suppression.”
“Companies rely on a sophisticated battery management system that will shut down certain battery functions in case of fire,” Flood says. “Our system will react to the flames and then flood the environment with liquid to cool it.” Because the material itself reacts to the fire, the vehicle’s computer system isn’t involved. So there’s no risk of a fire short-circuiting its own suppression system, which LithFire-X sees as an advantage.
LithFire-X’s products are gaining some traction. Although Butler and Flood declined to publicly identify their primary customers, they say they include a foreign automobile manufacturer and multiple domestic manufacturers. LithFire-X is also making money from contract work for manufacturers in a variety of sectors, as well as government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense.
Flood and Butler say they have competitors, but none focused solely on a similar type of fire suppression system. And even though we’re already living in a world that runs on lithium-ion batteries, LithFire-X predicts further growth for the company after new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards are implemented in 2025. Flood says that the easiest way to meet those standards is to implement “stop-start” technology across all vehicles.
“To do that, you need another 40 volt lithium-ion battery [in each vehicle],” Flood points out. “Now you have the possibility of a compromised battery and gas tank in every car. It just shows how lithium-ion batteries are an integral part of life, and people aren’t going to go back.”
LithFire-X is working with Wayne State’s patent clinic to trademark its intellectual property. Because of Flood’s age, the company’s application is being fast-tracked. “Once you’re over 75, you go to the head of the line,” Flood says with a grin.
In the meantime, as they continue to test and refine their fire suppression system, Butler and Flood are meeting with companies all over the world to sound the alarm on lithium-ion battery safety and offer their solution. Eventually, they plan to concentrate on military and airplane applications.
“We believe we have an affordable solution that won’t disrupt [the manufacturer’s] business,” Flood adds. “Most of our solutions can be easily synthesized into their current manufacturing processes. If we can conquer that, we can start working on other solutions.”