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November 10, 2016
When Lithium Ion Batteries Explode
November 10, 2016
Exploding lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries in hoverboards made in China last holiday season and more recently, exploding batteries in Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 phones has raised awareness – and paranoia – over this battery technology. It’s a technology that’s been commercially available for 25 years, so why the rash of explosions all of a sudden? That’s what we’ll investigate in today’s post along with what the future holds for rechargeable battery technology.First, I should point out that exploding Li-ion batteries is a rare occurrence despite all the media attention this topic has received over the past year. Nevertheless, the core material within them – lithium – is highly reactive especially when coming into contact with air and water. Extreme precaution must be taken in both the design, manufacture, and handling of Li-ion batteries.Rigorous safety and testing standards are in place along with safeguards built into Li-ion batteries in the form of temperature sensors, voltage regulators, charge state monitors, and vents. These internal controls spring into action if an over-charging or over-heating condition is detected and remove the load from the battery. Vents will pop to release internal pressure from the buildup of gases. Where things breakdown, and these internal protection devices are powerless to intervene, is in the case of manufacturing defects. This seems to have been the case with the Li-ion batteries used in the Samsung phones. Things are a bit more complex and darker in the exploding hoverboard case.Samsung reported that "a very rare manufacturing process error" resulted in the cathode and anode of the Li-ion batteries to touch. This of course is never good. Samsung issued a recall of Galaxy Note 7 phones and offered replacement phones. That didn’t go well and some of the replacements also overheated and caught fire causing Samsung to shut down the Note 7 product line. This was the case of a highly reputable company encountering a rare and intractable manufacturing problem. The hoverboard case unfortunately came down to greed on the part of opportunistic manufacturers and product abuse by customers.Like most fads, the hoverboard craze of late 2015 was a situation of demand exceeding supply. It reached a point that so many copycat manufacturers sprung up in China that it was difficult to tell who owned the original product patent. Despite claims of using genuine Samsung Li-ion batteries, it was later discovered that cheap knockoffs were used in many boards instead. Some of these counterfeit batteries simply had a piece of paper with the words “Samsung” wrapped around them.Even units that used genuine parts had issues due to lack of an overall safety standard regulating the entire device. It’s not enough that a product is comprised of parts the all meet the UL safety standard. The device as a whole must also be tested. It seemed unusual that there wasn’t a consistent set of circumstances in which hoverboards caught fire. Some overheated during charging, while others caught fire during use or simply sitting idle. A critical safety risk with Li-ion batteries is damage that results in the puncturing of the seal, exposing the highly reactive lithium to air. You definitely want to avoid dropping or otherwise physically abusing these batteries. It should come as little surprise that hoverboards take a beating. This was evidenced by all those videos of first time riders taking hard landings.Despite such failures, the demand for rechargeable batteries is only increasing. They are used in everything from laptops, toys, mobile devices, to leading the way in electric vehicle technology. Consumers expect their portable devices to hold a charge for as long as possible while being ultra-lightweight. For now, Li-ion is packing the biggest punch in rechargeable battery technology, however, there are new technologies in the lab that hold the promise of being cheaper while delivering better performance than Li-ion.Sodium-ion battery technology is one such technology currently under investigation. Where Lithium must be mined in a geographically-limited region of the world, sodium has no such restriction, though it presents its own set of challenges in the development of a commercial product. For at least the next decade, we’re going to have to live with the Li-ion battery despite its limitations and known risks. In the interim, expect to see continued advances in Li-ion battery technology.You may be wondering how the topic of exploding lithium ion batteries fits into the training here at Cybrary.it. In the most basic sense, it’s an important area of technology that every IT practitioner should be versed. There’s no escaping their presence in the world around us. The proliferation of portable mobile devices and BYOD work policies only serves to increase the need for more awareness regarding their use and potential risks.Li-ion batteries are also used in most UPS devices. Knowing the basic safety precautions regarding using only approved chargers and ambient temperature limits required to prevent overheating is essential. Certifications such as A+ and ones encompassing physical issues such as disaster recovery and continuity planning are within this technology realm. Getting hands-on with the hardware extends beyond configuring routers and switches and will serve to make you a more accomplished and valued IT professional.