Samsung’s massive global recall of the lithium battery has once more focused attention around 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 immediately power on the phones and exchange them for replacements. The Government Aviation Administration issued a powerful advisory asking passengers to not take advantage of the Note 7 and 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 great. They may be industry’s favored power source for wireless applications because of their extended run times. One can use them in from power tools to e-cigarettes to Apple’s new wireless earbuds. And most of the time, consumers drive them with no consideration. In ways, this battery will be the ultimate technological black box. Many are bundled into applications and are not generally accessible for retail sale. Accordingly, the technology is essentially out from sight and from mind, and yes it does not obtain the credit it deserves for an enabler of the mobile computing revolution. Indeed, the lithium rechargeable battery is as vital as the miniaturized microprocessor in connection with this. It might one day modify the face of automobile transport being a power source for electric vehicles.
It is therefore impossible to imagine modern life without lithium ion power. But society has brought a calculated risk in proliferating it. Scientists, engineers, and corporate planners long ago made a Faustian bargain with chemistry when they created this technology, whose origins date for the mid-1970s. Some variants use highly energetic but very volatile materials which need carefully engineered control systems. Generally, these systems work as intended. Sometimes, though, the lithium genie gets out from the bottle, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
This takes place with greater frequency than it might seem. Because the late 1990s and early 2000s, we have seen a drum roll of product safety warnings and recalls of 12v lithium battery that have burned or blown up practically every type of wireless application, including cameras, notebooks, hoverboards, vaporizers, and now smartphones. More ominously, lithium batteries have burned in commercial jet aircraft, a likely factor in a minimum 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 only a tale of methods Samsung botched the rollout of their latest weapon from the smartphone wars. It’s a story in regards to the nature of innovation in the postindustrial era, one which highlights the unintended consequences of your information technology revolution and globalization over the last three decades.
Essentially, the real difference from a handy lithium battery as well as an incendiary you can be boiled right down to three things: how industry manufactures these devices, the way it integrates them in the applications they power, and the way users treat their battery-containing appliances. Each time a lithium rechargeable discharges, lithium ions layered onto the negative electrode or anode (typically made of graphite) lose electrons, which enter into an external circuit to do useful work. The ions then migrate using a conductive material known as an electrolyte (usually an organic solvent) and grow lodged in spaces in the positive electrode or cathode, a layered oxide structure.
There are a variety of lithium battery chemistries, and some will be more stable than the others. Some, like lithium cobalt oxide, a common formula in consumer electronics, are really flammable. When such variants do ignite, the outcome is really a blaze that could be tough to extinguish because of the battery’s self-contained availability of oxidant.
To ensure such tetchy mixtures remain under control, battery manufacturing requires exacting quality control. Sony learned this lesson whenever it pioneered lithium rechargeable battery technology from the late 1980s. In the beginning, the chemical process the company accustomed to make the cathode material (lithium cobalt oxide) produced an incredibly fine powder, the granules of which experienced a high area. That increased the risk of fire, so Sony needed to invent a process to coarsen the particles.
An extra complication is that lithium ion batteries have numerous failure modes. Recharging too fast or excessive may cause lithium ions to plate out unevenly about the anode, creating growths called dendrites which could bridge the electrodes and result in a short circuit. Short circuits can be induced by physically damaging battery power, or improperly getting rid of it, or just putting it right into a pocket containing metal coins. Heat, whether internal or ambient, could cause the flammable electrolyte to build gases which may react uncontrollably with some other battery materials. This is known as thermal runaway which is virtually impossible to stop once initiated.
So lithium ion batteries needs to be designed with numerous safety features, including current interrupters and gas vent mechanisms. The standard such feature will be the separator, a polymer membrane that prevents the electrodes from contacting the other person and creating a short circuit that might direct energy in the electrolyte. Separators also inhibit dendrites, while offering minimal resistance to ionic transport. In short, the separator may be the last collection of defense against thermal runaway. Some larger multicell batteries, like the types utilized in electric vehicles, isolate individual cells to contain failures and use 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 way it is once they indicated that a manufacturing flaw had led the negative and positive electrodes get in touch with the other person. If the separator is in fact responsible will not be yet known.
At any rate, it can be revealing that for Samsung, the issue is entirely the battery, not the smartphone. The implication is better quality control will solve the situation. Without doubt it might help. But the manufacturing of commodity electronics is simply too complex because there being a straightforward solution here. There is definitely an organizational, cultural, and intellectual gulf between individuals who create batteries and people who create electronics, inhibiting manufacturers from thinking about applications and batteries as holistic systems. This estrangement has been further accentuated by the offshoring and outsourcing of industrial research, development, and manufacturing, a results of the competitive pressures of globalization.
The result 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 easiest and cheapest means for designers of lithium cells to meet this demand was to thin out separators to make room for additional reactive material, creating thermal management problems and narrowed margins of safety.
Economic pressures further eroded these margins. Through the 1990s, the rechargeable lithium battery sector became a highly competitive, low-margin industry dominated by a number of firms based mainly in Japan. From around 2000, these organizations began to move manufacturing to South Korea and China in operations initially plagued by extensive bugs and cell scrap rates.
Many of these factors played a part inside the notebook battery fire crisis of 2006. Numerous incidents prompted the greatest recalls in consumer electronics history to that date, involving some 9.6 million batteries created by Sony. The company ascribed the trouble to faulty manufacturing which had contaminated cells with microscopic shards of metal. Establishing quality control will certainly be a tall order as long as original equipment manufacturers disperse supply chains and outsource production.
Another issue is the fact 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 as much through 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 over the industry.
My analysis of United states Consumer Product Safety Commission recalls at that time (being published in Technology & Culture in January 2017) demonstrates that there could have been some truth to this. Nearly half of the recalled batteries (4.2 million) in 2006 were for notebooks created by Dell, a company whose business structure was according to integrating cheap outsourced parts and minimizing in-house R&D costs. In August 2006, the newest York Times cited a former Dell employee who claimed the 02dexspky had suppressed hundreds of incidents of catastrophic battery failures dating to 2002. In contrast, relatively few reported incidents at that time involved Sony batteries in Sony computers.
In a sense, then, the lithium ion battery fires are largely a consequence of the way you have structured society. We still don’t have uniform safety protocols for a multitude of problems associated with 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 get greater convenience, and profit, in electronics and electric automobiles. The quest for more power and better voltage is straining the physical limits of lithium ion batteries, there are few technologies less forgiving of your chaotically single-minded method by which humankind are increasingly making their way worldwide. Scientists work on safer alternatives, but we need to expect many more unpleasant surprises from your existing technology within the interim.