Lithium batteries are amazing. These energy-dense power storage devices have revolutionized the world of portable power. Everything from electric cars to smartphones to toothbrushes now use these batteries. The benefits of lithium ion technology are manifold. Apart from their formidable energy density, they also self-discharge at a very low rate compared to something like a lead acid battery. They don’t need to be “primed”, they don’t have a “memory effect”, and they are generally maintenance free.
On the other hand, they lose capacity due to age, they are more expensive than, say, NiCad batteries, and we are still learning how to get the best out of them. On balance lithium batteries are a superior battery technology, but they have one other little problem which can make their use a problem – they can explode!
Compared to other commercial battery technologies, lithium ion batteries are pretty unstable. If you crush, pierce, or overcharge a lithium battery then you are likely to get a flaming, burning, exploding battery. Quite a few people have been seriously hurt by lithium ion batteries. Some deaths have occurred. Houses have burnt down and children have been disfigured. It’s not a pretty picture.
Thankfully, modern safety standards when it comes to lithium batteries are very, very good. Although the news likes to make a big noise when someone’s smartphone explodes in their face, it’s actually a very rare occurrence. Then when you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that many of these cases are a result of pirate batteries or unregulated electronics from the Far East. So you don’t have to worry too much about the batteries in your laptop or phone – unless you throw them in a fire or drive nails through them, that is.
Then there’s also the situation where a manufacturer messes up. Samsung did just this with the improperly designed battery in the Galaxy Note 7. This caused widespread fires in user’s hands, and a massive recall effort.
Despite the high levels of safety now possible with these volatile batteries, there’s still a good case to be made for idiot-proof and accident-proof lithium ion technology. The use of lithium batteries in electric cars is a big motivator, if nothing else. When electric cars get into accidents the risk of fire can be extreme. They are build incredibly tough in terms of the battery compartment to minimize this risk, but there has to be a better way.
A company called Amionix has lately been making headlines thanks to a safer version of lithium battery technology they have been working on for years. As I write this, the technology has made it into the hands of independent media outlets and it really does seem as of the company has invented a new formula for making these batteries that prevents them from flaming out and exploding. It’s called SafeCore, and the US military is already putting it into certain vehicles where bullets have a real chance of piercing a battery. The special material that they have added to the inside of the battery prevents thermal runaway, and therefore keeps things safe.
There’s more to SafeCore than just preventing accidental barbecues. In electric cars, for example, much of the battery weight is from the crash-resistant containers the batteries have to be in. Now you can use that space to add more battery capacity or make the vehicle lighter. Either will result in more practical EVs.
From a solar power perspective this is also a pretty major improvement. Right now, if you use lithium technology you have to take more than a few precautions to make sure the installation is safe. If you are using something like the Tesla Powerwall, a lot of the cost and actual product volume is dedicated to safety equipment. So having truly safe lithium batteries will make lithium solar backup installations smaller, cheaper, and much less likely to burn everything down in case of an earthquake or other environmental trigger.
There are others racing to design safe lithium batteries too, so even if SafeCore doesn’t make it into your phone, in the future we’re still likely to significantly reduce spontaneous human combustion by battery. Now that’s something to give you a charge!