Samsung’s massive global recall from the lithium battery has again focused attention on the hazards of lithium ion batteries-specifically, the health risks of lithium ion batteries exploding. Samsung first announced the recall on Sept. 2, and only weekly 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 strong advisory asking passengers not to make use of the Note 7 or perhaps stow it in checked baggage. Airlines worldwide hastened to ban in-flight use and charging of your device.
Lithium rechargeable batteries are ubiquitous and, thankfully, the vast majority work perfectly. They may be industry’s favored power source for wireless applications due to their very long run times. They are utilised in anything from power tools to e-cigarettes to Apple’s new wireless earbuds. And most of the time, consumers bring them without any consideration. In many ways, this battery will be the ultimate technological black box. The majority are bundled into applications and so are not generally designed for retail sale. Accordingly, the technology is essentially out from sight and away from mind, plus it does not obtain the credit it deserves as an enabler of the mobile computing revolution. Indeed, the lithium rechargeable battery is as vital as the miniaturized microprocessor in this connection. It may one day change the face of automobile transport like a source of energy for electric vehicles.
So it is impossible to imagine modern life without lithium ion power. But society has taken a calculated risk in proliferating it. Scientists, engineers, and corporate planners long ago made a Faustian bargain with chemistry whenever they created this technology, whose origins date towards the mid-1970s. Some variants use highly energetic but very volatile materials which require carefully engineered control systems. Generally, these systems act as intended. Sometimes, though, the lithium genie gets out from the bottle, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
This happens with greater frequency than you might think. Considering that the late 1990s and early 2000s, there has been a drum roll of product safety warnings and recalls of 12v lithium battery which have burned or blown up practically every type of wireless application, including cameras, notebooks, hoverboards, vaporizers, 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 in 2010. At the begining of 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 tale of how Samsung botched the rollout from the latest weapon inside the smartphone wars. It’s a story about the nature of innovation inside the postindustrial era, one that highlights the unintended consequences of the information technology revolution and globalization over the last thirty years.
Basically, the real difference between a handy lithium battery along with an incendiary one can be boiled down to three things: how industry manufactures these products, the way it integrates them in the applications they power, and how users treat their battery-containing appliances. Each time a lithium rechargeable discharges, lithium ions layered to the negative electrode or anode (typically created from graphite) lose electrons, which go deep into an external circuit to complete useful work. The ions then migrate through a conductive material called an electrolyte (usually an organic solvent) and grow lodged in spaces inside the positive electrode or cathode, a layered oxide structure.
There are a selection of lithium battery chemistries, and several tend to be more stable as opposed to others. Some, like lithium cobalt oxide, a common formula in consumer electronics, are very flammable. When such variants do ignite, the end result is a blaze that can be challenging to extinguish because of the battery’s self-contained flow of oxidant.
To ensure such tetchy mixtures remain in order, battery manufacturing requires exacting quality control. Sony learned this lesson whenever it pioneered lithium rechargeable battery technology inside the late 1980s. Initially, the chemical process the company employed to make your cathode material (lithium cobalt oxide) produced an incredibly fine powder, the granules that enjoyed a high surface. That increased the risk of fire, so Sony needed to invent an operation to coarsen the particles.
Yet another complication is the fact that lithium ion batteries have several failure modes. Recharging too fast or too much might cause lithium ions to plate out unevenly on the anode, creating growths called dendrites that could bridge the electrodes and create a short circuit. Short circuits may also be induced by physically damaging battery power, or improperly disposing of it, or just putting it into a pocket containing metal coins. Heat, whether internal or ambient, might cause the flammable electrolyte to generate gases which may react uncontrollably with many other battery materials. This is known as thermal runaway and it is virtually impossible to avoid once initiated.
So lithium ion batteries must be equipped with numerous safety features, including current interrupters and gas vent mechanisms. The most basic such feature may be the separator, a polymer membrane that prevents the electrodes from contacting the other and developing a short circuit that might direct energy into the electrolyte. Separators also inhibit dendrites, while offering minimal potential to deal with ionic transport. In a nutshell, the separator will be the last line of defense against thermal runaway. Some larger multicell batteries, like the types found 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 complications with separators. Samsung officials did actually hint that this can be the case whenever they established that a manufacturing flaw had led the negative and positive electrodes get in touch with the other. Regardless of if the separator is really responsible is not really yet known.
At any rate, it is actually revealing that for Samsung, the issue is entirely the battery, not the smartphone. The implication is the fact better quality control will solve the issue. Without doubt it could help. However the manufacturing of commodity electronics is just too complex for there to get a straightforward solution here. There has been an organizational, cultural, and intellectual gulf between those who create batteries and those who create electronics, inhibiting manufacturers from considering applications and batteries as holistic systems. This estrangement is further accentuated with the offshoring and outsourcing of industrial research, development, and manufacturing, a consequence of the competitive pressures of globalization.
The outcome is a huge 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 technique for designers of lithium cells to meet this demand was to thin out separators to produce room for further 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 became a highly competitive, low-margin industry dominated by a few firms based mainly in Japan. From around 2000, these firms begun to move manufacturing to South Korea and China in operations initially plagued by extensive bugs and high cell scrap rates.
Every one of these factors played a part from the notebook battery fire crisis of 2006. Numerous incidents prompted the largest recalls in consumer electronics history to that date, involving some 9.6 million batteries manufactured by Sony. The company ascribed the trouble to faulty manufacturing who had contaminated cells with microscopic shards of metal. Establishing quality control will be a tall order so long as original equipment manufacturers disperse supply chains and outsource production.
Another issue is that makers of applications like notebooks and smartphones might not exactly necessarily understand how to properly integrate outsourced lithium cells into safe battery packs and applications. Sony hinted all the throughout the 2006 crisis. While admitting its quality control woes, the organization suggested that some notebook manufacturers were improperly charging its batteries, noting that battery configuration, thermal management, and charging protocols varied all over the industry.
My analysis of United states Consumer Product Safety Commission recalls in those days (to get published in Technology & Culture in January 2017) suggests that there could have been some truth to this. Nearly 50 % of the recalled batteries (4.2 million) in 2006 were for notebooks created by Dell, an organization whose business structure was based on 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 a huge selection of incidents of catastrophic battery failures dating to 2002. As opposed, relatively few reported incidents in those days involved Sony batteries in Sony computers.
In a way, then, the lithium ion battery fires are largely a results of how you have structured society. We still don’t have uniform safety protocols for numerous problems associated with 3.7v lithium 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 seek greater convenience, and profit, in electronics and electric automobiles. The quest for more power and higher voltage is straining the physical limits of lithium ion batteries, where there are few technologies less forgiving from the chaotically single-minded way in which humans are increasingly making their way in the world. Scientists are operating on safer alternatives, but we ought to expect many more unpleasant surprises through the existing technology from the interim.