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Lithium-ion Batteries…. Life and Death

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Lithium-ion Batteries…. Life and Death

Lithium-ion Batteries…. Life and Death


We all use them, they are in your phone, tablet or laptop Lithium-ion batteries are the most common power source for them all.  However there is a potential deadly risk in having them

Lighter, less expensive and more energy dense than other battery technologies the  lithium-ion has become the rechargeable battery of today. It powers everything from mobile phones and laptops to cars and commercial jets. But there is one little problem—these batteries don't just short circuit, they explode into flames. Here's what goes on inside a lithium cell before it goes boom.

The lithium-ion battery's explosive tendencies are the result of a process known as thermal runaway. It's essentially an energetic positive feedback loop whereby increasing temperature causes the system to get hotter, which increases the temperature, which causes the system to get even hotter, and so on. Thermal runaway is surprisingly common and can be found in a wide array of physical and chemical processes, from curing concrete (which releases heat) to exploding stars (supernovae are the result of TR on a cosmic scale).

Li-ion batteries can suffer thermal runaway for a variety of reasons. Much like bridging a 9V battery's terminals with a coin, short circuits caused by a tear in the membrane that separates the negative and positive poles of a Li-ion battery will often cause a thermal meltdown. Ambient temperatures exceeding 60 degrees C, repeated overcharging, or unauthorized modifications to the case have all also been reported as the source of battery fires.

Regardless of the reason, when conditions are right, it's the battery's cobalt oxide chemistry that actually undergoes the reaction. "When you heat this material up it can reach an onset temperature that begins to self-heat and progresses into fire and explosion. It may also burn openly if exposed to high temperatures or a spark.

While this uncontrollable reaction doesn't happen particularly often, the sheer number of Li-ion cells in the world today amplifies the perceived effect. In 2006, for example, high-profile recalls came from virtually every major laptop manufacturer—Apple, HP, Toshiba, Lenovo, Dell, and others—after a small number of batteries overheated. Apple alone yanked 1.8 million iBook and PowerBook battery packs from market after just nine reports of overheating according to the CPSC

There is no need to fear your laptop as a ticking time bomb, however. With a bit of regular maintenance, Li-ion batteries will perform safely and reliably throughout their operational service lives. Li-ions are powerful but short lived, lasting two to three years at most (whether or not you use it or leave it on a shelf). As such, all Li-ion packs should be replaced every 36 months or so to avoid pushing a worn cell too hard. Also, these batteries should be recharged once their capacity hits 50 percent. Li-ions don't suffer from memory effects but are severely damaged if the voltage drops too low.

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