Samsung’s massive global recall from the 18650 battery manufacturer has once again focused attention about the hazards of lithium ion batteries-specifically, the hazards of lithium ion batteries exploding. Samsung first announced the recall on Sept. 2, and only a week later it took the extraordinary step of asking customers to right away power down the phones and exchange them for replacements. The Federal Aviation Administration issued a solid advisory asking passengers to not utilize the Note 7 or even stow it in checked baggage. Airlines worldwide hastened to ban in-flight use and charging from the device.
Lithium rechargeable batteries are ubiquitous and, thankfully, the vast majority work just fine. They can be industry’s favored power source for wireless applications due to their lengthy run times. One can use them in anything from power tools to e-cigarettes to Apple’s new wireless earbuds. And most of the time, consumers bring them with no consideration. In a way, this battery will be the ultimate technological black box. Many are bundled into applications and therefore are not generally available for retail sale. Accordingly, the technology is essentially from sight and from mind, plus it will not get the credit it deserves as being an enabler of your mobile computing revolution. Indeed, the lithium rechargeable battery is as important as the miniaturized microprocessor in this connection. It could 1 day alter the face of automobile transport as being a power source for electric vehicles.
So it will be impossible to visualize modern life without lithium ion power. But society is taking a calculated risk in proliferating it. Scientists, engineers, and corporate planners long ago crafted a Faustian bargain with chemistry once they created this technology, whose origins date for the mid-1970s. Some variants use highly energetic but very volatile materials which require carefully engineered control systems. Generally, these systems serve as intended. Sometimes, though, the lithium genie gets out of your bottle, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
This occurs more regularly than it might seem. Ever since the late 1990s and early 2000s, we have seen a drum roll of product safety warnings and recalls of energy power battery which have burned or blown up practically every kind of wireless application, including cameras, notebooks, hoverboards, vaporizers, and now smartphones. More ominously, lithium batteries have burned in commercial jet aircraft, a likely aspect in a minumum of one major fatal crash, an incident that prompted the FAA to issue a recommendation restricting their bulk carriage on passenger flights during 2010. In early 2016, the International Civil Aviation Organization banned outright the shipment of lithium ion batteries as cargo on passenger aircraft.
And so the Galaxy Note 7 fiasco is not just a story of methods Samsung botched the rollout of its latest weapon inside the smartphone wars. It’s a story regarding the nature of innovation within the postindustrial era, the one that highlights the unintended consequences from the information technology revolution and globalization throughout the last 30 years.
Basically, the real difference from a handy lithium battery as well as an incendiary you can be boiled to three things: how industry manufactures these products, the way it integrates them in the applications they power, and exactly how users treat their battery-containing appliances. Every time a lithium rechargeable discharges, lithium ions layered into the negative electrode or anode (typically manufactured from graphite) lose electrons, which enter into an external circuit to do useful work. The ions then migrate via a conductive material called an electrolyte (usually an organic solvent) and be lodged in spaces from the positive electrode or cathode, a layered oxide structure.
There are a number of lithium battery chemistries, and a few are definitely more stable than the others. Some, like lithium cobalt oxide, a common formula in electronic products, are really flammable. When such variants do ignite, the end result is really a blaze that could be hard to extinguish because of the battery’s self-contained flow of oxidant.
To ensure that such tetchy mixtures remain under control, battery manufacturing requires exacting quality control. Sony learned this lesson whenever it pioneered lithium rechargeable battery technology in the late 1980s. At first, the chemical process the business accustomed to have the cathode material (lithium cobalt oxide) produced a very fine powder, the granules that experienced a high surface. That increased the risk of fire, so Sony were required to invent a procedure to coarsen the particles.
One more complication is lithium ion batteries have numerous failure modes. Recharging too fast or excessive might cause lithium ions to plate out unevenly around the anode, creating growths called dendrites which could bridge the electrodes and create a short circuit. Short circuits can also be induced by physically damaging a battery, or improperly disposing of it, or simply putting it right into a pocket containing metal coins. Heat, whether internal or ambient, might cause the flammable electrolyte to produce gases which could react uncontrollably with other battery materials. This is known as thermal runaway which is virtually impossible to avoid once initiated.
So lithium ion batteries needs to be provided with numerous safety features, including current interrupters and gas vent mechanisms. The most basic such feature will be the separator, a polymer membrane that prevents the electrodes from contacting one another and building a short circuit that might direct energy in the electrolyte. Separators also inhibit dendrites, while offering minimal resistance to ionic transport. To put it briefly, the separator may be the last type of defense against thermal runaway. Some larger multicell batteries, for example the types used in electric vehicles, isolate individual cells to contain failures and employ elaborate and costly cooling and thermal management systems.
Some authorities ascribe Samsung’s battery crisis to problems with separators. Samsung officials did actually hint that this might be the truth after they indicated that a manufacturing flaw had led the negative and positive electrodes to get hold of one another. Whether or not the separator is really at fault will not be yet known.
At any rate, it really is revealing that for Samsung, the catch is entirely battery, not the smartphone. The implication is the fact that higher quality control will solve the trouble. Undoubtedly it could help. But the manufacturing of commodity electronics is too complex for there being a simple solution here. There has been an organizational, cultural, and intellectual gulf between those that create batteries and those that create electronics, inhibiting manufacturers from considering applications and batteries as holistic systems. This estrangement is further accentuated by the offshoring and outsourcing of industrial research, development, and manufacturing, a results of the competitive pressures of globalization.
The outcome has become a protracted consumer product safety crisis. Inside the late 1990s and early 2000s, notebook designers introduced faster processors that generated more heat and required more power. The most basic and cheapest method for designers of lithium cells to fulfill this demand would be to thin out separators to make room for more reactive material, creating thermal management problems and narrowed margins of safety.
Economic pressures further eroded these margins. In the 1990s, the rechargeable lithium battery sector was a highly competitive, low-margin industry dominated by a number of firms based mainly in Japan. From around 2000, these businesses begun to move manufacturing to South Korea and China in operations initially plagued by extensive bugs and cell scrap rates.
All of these factors played a role in the notebook battery fire crisis of 2006. Numerous incidents prompted the largest recalls in consumer electronics history to that particular date, involving some 9.6 million batteries made by Sony. The corporation ascribed the problem to faulty manufacturing who had contaminated cells with microscopic shards of metal. Establishing quality control is a tall order given that original equipment manufacturers disperse supply chains and outsource production.
Additional problems is makers of applications like notebooks and smartphones might not exactly necessarily learn how to properly integrate outsourced lithium cells into safe battery packs and applications. Sony hinted just as much throughout the 2006 crisis. While admitting its quality control woes, the company suggested that some notebook manufacturers were improperly charging its batteries, noting that battery configuration, thermal management, and charging protocols varied across the industry.
My analysis of Usa Consumer Product Safety Commission recalls at that time (to be published in Technology & Culture in January 2017) suggests that there may have been some truth for this. Nearly one half of the recalled batteries (4.2 million) in 2006 were for notebooks manufactured by Dell, a firm whose business structure was according to integrating cheap outsourced parts and minimizing in-house R&D costs. In August 2006, the New York Times cited a former Dell employee who claimed the 02dexspky had suppressed numerous incidents of catastrophic battery failures dating to 2002. On the other hand, relatively few reported incidents at that time involved Sony batteries in Sony computers.
In a way, then, the lithium ion battery fires are largely a results of the way we have structured society. We still don’t have uniform safety protocols for numerous types of problems relating to 18650 li ion battery, including transporting and disposing of them and safely rescuing passengers from accidents involving electric cars powered by them. Such measures badly trail the drive to look for greater convenience, and profit, in electronics and electric automobiles. The hunt for more power and higher voltage is straining the physical limits of lithium ion batteries, and then there are few technologies less forgiving from the chaotically single-minded manner in which human beings are increasingly making their way on earth. Scientists work on safer alternatives, but we should expect much more unpleasant surprises through the existing technology in the interim.