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Electric Ford Van Briefly Catches Fire at Testing Site

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In an incident that became public late Wednesday, a Ford Ecostar electric utility van caught fire briefly while being recharged after testing May 2 at the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto.

The vehicle, based on Ford Motor Co.'s European Escort van, is being tested by potential fleet customers around the country. It is powered by sodium-sulfur batteries, which must be maintained at 600 degrees Fahrenheit.

Such batteries have as much as three times the energy-storage capacity of conventional electric car batteries, but they have been criticized even by some electric car engineers for their potential to cause a fire in an accident.

There were no injuries in the incident, said Hank Courtright, director of EPRI’s customer systems division, which is doing research on the practical use of the vehicle. Courtright noticed a smell and a small “whiff” of smoke about an hour after recharging began.

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“Apparently . . . one of the (battery) cells had cracked,” Courtright said Wednesday, " . . . and we were told by the manufacturer that a limited lot was done using a certain welding technique.”

A Ford statement, issued by EPRI, agreed.

“Ford has determined that these battery cells were built with a different production procedure and that no other battery in today’s fleet employs cells built with the same production process,” the statement said.

According to Ford, 26 Ecostars have been placed with 11 fleet customers, including Southern California Edison Co.

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