A Battery Boost: Despite Safety Concerns, Lithium-ion Batteries Are the Next Big Deal

Astronaut Image Credit: Jim Romeo
Image Courtesy of Jim Romeo

Lithium-ion batteries are rechargeable energy cells considered to have a “high-energy density,” meaning they can store a lot of energy.

As an energy source, lithium-ion cells have been around for a while. Lithium-ion batteries, however, only came into being in 1980. Supposedly, Sony Corp. released them in 1991.

The market seems to be taking off. According to researcher Reports and Data, lithium-ion batteries are a $36-billion market, expected to soar to about $110 billion by 2026—a 13.4 percent annual rate of growth.

Lithium-ion batteries are commonly used in equipment requiring critical power sources, such as automotive, aerospace and military applications. Because they discharge slowly and recharge quickly, lithium-ion batteries last a while and are a reliable energy-storage solution.

Their safety record causes concern. Lithium-ion batteries contain a very flammable electrolyte, which may become pressurized, leading to fires or explosions. If a battery cell charges too quickly, it could cause a short circuit, which then can also lead to explosions and fires.

Hewlett Packard extended a recall of laptops powered with lithium-ion batteries due to problems with laptops overheating and subsequent risk of fire and burns. Specifically, eight injuries were reported, and there were two property damage reports that totaled $1,100.

Lithium-ion batteries also are an explosion hazard. If a lithium-ion battery is damaged or crushed, the battery may absorb an electrical load beyond its capacity. Any external short circuit can then trigger the batteries to explode.

This risk has the attention of regulators and manufacturers, who now require more thorough, comprehensive lithium-ion battery testing before they enter the market.

Several years ago, Samsung Galaxy Note 7 cell phones were recalled when their batteries overheated and exploded. Air travelers were banned from turning them on and charging them on planes.

There are restrictions on lithium-ion battery packs for air travel. Usually the batteries inside the devices can be transported as part of an electronic device, but new regulations might prohibit this.

In late February, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, in coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration, issued a rule known as an Interim Final Rule that prohibits the transport of lithium-ion cells or batteries as cargo on passenger aircraft. It also requires lithium-ion cells and batteries to be shipped with no more than a 30 percent state of charge aboard cargo-only aircraft.

New technology on the rise

In spite of their safety hazards, lithium-ion batteries remain an excellent, sought-after solution for energy storage. This has prompted academic and industry researchers to develop better technology for the batteries’ safe and improved use.

Penn State University researchers explored a solid-electrolyte interphase (SEI) that supports the cell’s increased energy density, performance and safety. According to their research, the utility of SEI was stymied in the past by a salt layer on the surface of the battery’s lithium electrode. The layer forms naturally in the battery and is important for insulation and conduction, but it also degrades the SEI. Penn State engineers have developed a polymer composite to create a better SEI they expect to improve cell performance and safety.

Motorola has developed a cell to capitalize the high energy storage and durability, while operating in cold environments. Its aluminum lithium-ion technology battery retains 85 percent capacity even if the temperature drops to —58°F. Other batteries would normally fail under such conditions.

Plus, its new product, the Motorola Modular Battery System can hold a charge for up to three months and perform multiple functions such as jump-starting a car, charging a mobile device, providing backup power for a laptop and more.

As more innovators recognize the value of lithium-ion cells, we can expect lithium-ion batteries to improve and probably double in storage in years to come.

Last August, Sarah McFarlane wrote in the Wall Street Journal about Dr. John Goodenough, who helped introduce lithium cobalt oxide to batteries to make them smaller and more powerful. Now 96, Goodenough and three co-authors published research that he said is being used to develop a prototype of a liquid- and cobalt-free battery.

McFarlane describes Goodenough as determined to create positive change: “‘My mission is to try to see if I can transform the battery world before I die,’ Dr. Goodenough said.”

About the Author

Jim Romeo

Freelance Writer

Jim Romeo is a freelance writer based in Chesapeake, Va. He focuses on business and technology topics. Find him at www.JimRomeo.net.

Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.