Samsung’s massive global recall from the 18650 battery manufacturer has again focused attention in the hazards of lithium ion batteries-specifically, the potential health risks of lithium ion batteries exploding. Samsung first announced the recall on Sept. 2, and only every week later it took the extraordinary step of asking customers to instantly power on the phones and exchange them for replacements. The Federal Aviation Administration issued a powerful advisory asking passengers not to make use of the Note 7 as well as stow it in checked baggage. Airlines worldwide hastened to ban in-flight use and charging in the device.
Lithium rechargeable batteries are ubiquitous and, thankfully, the vast majority work just great. They can be industry’s favored source of energy for wireless applications because of their long run times. One can use them in anything from power tools to e-cigarettes to Apple’s new wireless earbuds. And quite often, consumers take them for granted. In many ways, this battery is definitely the ultimate technological black box. Most are bundled into applications and are not generally designed for retail sale. Accordingly, the technology is basically out of sight and from mind, plus it does not get the credit it deserves for an enabler in the mobile computing revolution. Indeed, the lithium rechargeable battery is as vital as the miniaturized microprocessor in connection with this. It may a day affect the face of automobile transport being a source of energy for electric vehicles.
So it will be 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 once they created this technology, whose origins date to the mid-1970s. Some variants use highly energetic but very volatile materials that require carefully engineered control systems. Generally, these systems function as intended. Sometimes, though, the lithium genie gets out of the bottle, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
This happens with greater frequency than it might seem. Considering that the late 1990s and early 2000s, there has been a drum roll of product safety warnings and recalls of energy power battery that have burned or blown up practically every kind of wireless application, including cameras, notebooks, hoverboards, vaporizers, and from now on smartphones. More ominously, lithium batteries have burned in commercial jet aircraft, a likely factor in one or more major fatal crash, an incident that prompted the FAA to issue a recommendation restricting their bulk carriage on passenger flights in 2010. In early 2016, the International Civil Aviation Organization banned outright the shipment of lithium ion batteries as cargo on passenger aircraft.
So the Galaxy Note 7 fiasco is not just a narrative of methods Samsung botched the rollout of the latest weapon from the smartphone wars. It’s a tale concerning the nature of innovation within the postindustrial era, one which highlights the unintended consequences of the i . t . revolution and globalization throughout the last 30 years.
In essence, the difference between a handy lithium battery along with an incendiary you can be boiled as a result of three things: how industry manufactures these products, how it integrates them in to the applications they power, and the way users treat their battery-containing appliances. Whenever a lithium rechargeable discharges, lithium ions layered on the negative electrode or anode (typically manufactured from graphite) lose electrons, which get into an external circuit to complete useful work. The ions then migrate via a conductive material generally known as an electrolyte (usually an organic solvent) and become lodged in spaces within the positive electrode or cathode, a layered oxide structure.
There are a number of lithium battery chemistries, and a few tend to be more stable as opposed to others. Some, like lithium cobalt oxide, a common formula in electronic products, are very flammable. When such variants do ignite, the result is actually a blaze that can be hard to extinguish due to the battery’s self-contained availability of oxidant.
To make certain that such tetchy mixtures remain manageable, battery manufacturing requires exacting quality control. Sony learned this lesson if it pioneered lithium rechargeable battery technology within the late 1980s. In the beginning, the chemical process the corporation accustomed to create the cathode material (lithium cobalt oxide) produced a very fine powder, the granules which possessed a high surface. That increased the chance of fire, so Sony was required to invent a procedure to coarsen the particles.
An extra complication is that lithium ion batteries have several failure modes. Recharging too quickly or a lot of can cause lithium ions to plate out unevenly about the anode, creating growths called dendrites which may bridge the electrodes and produce a short circuit. Short circuits will also be induced by physically damaging a battery, or improperly disposing of it, or simply putting it right into a pocket containing metal coins. Heat, whether internal or ambient, might cause the flammable electrolyte to create gases that could react uncontrollably along with other battery materials. This is called thermal runaway which is virtually impossible to quit once initiated.
So lithium ion batteries needs to be designed with numerous safety features, including current interrupters and gas vent mechanisms. The most basic such feature is the separator, a polymer membrane that prevents the electrodes from contacting the other and building a short circuit that could direct energy in the electrolyte. Separators also inhibit dendrites, while offering minimal resistance to ionic transport. Simply speaking, the separator may be the last brand of defense against thermal runaway. Some larger multicell batteries, for example 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 difficulties with separators. Samsung officials appeared to hint that this can be the truth whenever they established that a manufacturing flaw had led the negative and positive electrodes to make contact with each other. Regardless of if the separator is actually to blame will not be yet known.
At any rate, it is revealing that for Samsung, the issue is entirely the battery, not the smartphone. The implication is that higher quality control will solve the problem. Undoubtedly it will help. But the manufacturing of commodity electronics is just too complex for there being a simple solution here. There has always been 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 become further accentuated from the offshoring and outsourcing of industrial research, development, and manufacturing, a results of the competitive pressures of globalization.
The result has been 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 best and cheapest way for designers of lithium cells to satisfy this demand was to thin out separators to produce 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 covered with a number of firms based mainly in Japan. From around 2000, these companies begun to move manufacturing to South Korea and China in operations initially plagued by extensive bugs and cell scrap rates.
Most of these factors played a role inside the notebook battery fire crisis of 2006. Numerous incidents prompted the biggest recalls in consumer electronics history to that date, involving some 9.6 million batteries produced by Sony. The corporation ascribed the situation to faulty manufacturing which had contaminated cells with microscopic shards of metal. Establishing quality control will be a tall order given that original equipment manufacturers disperse supply chains and outsource production.
Additional problems is the fact makers of applications like notebooks and smartphones might not exactly necessarily know how to properly integrate outsourced lithium cells into safe battery packs and applications. Sony hinted the maximum amount of throughout 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 Usa Consumer Product Safety Commission recalls at that time (to get published in Technology & Culture in January 2017) suggests that there could have been some truth for this. Nearly one half of the recalled batteries (4.2 million) in 2006 were for notebooks produced by Dell, a firm whose business design was based on integrating cheap outsourced parts and minimizing in-house R&D costs. In August 2006, the New York Times cited a former Dell employee who claimed the 02dexspky had suppressed numerous incidents of catastrophic battery failures dating to 2002. On the other hand, relatively few reported incidents during that time involved Sony batteries in Sony computers.
In a sense, then, the lithium ion battery fires are largely a results of how we have structured society. We still don’t have uniform safety protocols for a multitude of 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 pursuit of more power and better voltage is straining the physical limits of lithium ion batteries, and there are few technologies less forgiving in the chaotically single-minded manner in which people are increasingly making their way on earth. Scientists are working on safer alternatives, but we should expect more unpleasant surprises through the existing technology within the interim.