Samsung’s massive global recall of the lithium battery has again focused attention around 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 across the phones and exchange them for replacements. The Federal Aviation Administration issued a solid advisory asking passengers never to utilize the Note 7 or even stow it in checked baggage. Airlines around the globe hastened to ban in-flight use and charging of the device.
Lithium rechargeable batteries are ubiquitous and, thankfully, the vast majority work perfectly. They are industry’s favored source of energy for wireless applications owing to their long run times. They are utilized in anything from power tools to e-cigarettes to Apple’s new wireless earbuds. And most of the time, consumers take them as a given. In a way, this battery is definitely the ultimate technological black box. Nearly all are bundled into applications and they are not generally designed for retail sale. Accordingly, the technology is largely from sight and away from mind, and it also fails to obtain the credit it deserves being an enabler of your mobile computing revolution. Indeed, the lithium rechargeable battery is as important as the miniaturized microprocessor in this connection. It might one day alter the face of automobile transport being a source of energy for electric vehicles.
Therefore it is impossible to visualize modern life without lithium ion power. But society has gotten a calculated risk in proliferating it. Scientists, engineers, and corporate planners long ago produced 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 need carefully engineered control systems. Generally, these systems work as intended. Sometimes, though, the lithium genie gets from the bottle, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
Such a thing happens more regularly than you may think. Since the late 1990s and early 2000s, there has been a drum roll of product safety warnings and recalls of energy power battery which have burned or blown up practically every form of wireless application, including cameras, notebooks, hoverboards, vaporizers, and today smartphones. More ominously, lithium batteries have burned in commercial jet aircraft, a likely aspect in a minumum 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.
So the Galaxy Note 7 fiasco is not just a narrative of how Samsung botched the rollout from the latest weapon within the smartphone wars. It’s a story concerning the nature of innovation inside the postindustrial era, the one that highlights the unintended consequences of your information technology revolution and globalization over the past 30 years.
In simple terms, the visible difference from a handy lithium battery along with an incendiary you can be boiled to three things: how industry manufactures these units, the way integrates them into the applications they power, and the way users treat their battery-containing appliances. When a lithium rechargeable discharges, lithium ions layered into the negative electrode or anode (typically made from graphite) lose electrons, which go deep into an external circuit to do useful work. The ions then migrate using a conductive material generally known as an electrolyte (usually an organic solvent) and be lodged in spaces from the positive electrode or cathode, a layered oxide structure.
There are lots of lithium battery chemistries, plus some are more stable than others. Some, like lithium cobalt oxide, a standard formula in electronic products, are really flammable. When such variants do ignite, the effect can be a blaze which can be challenging to extinguish because of the battery’s self-contained availability of oxidant.
To ensure such tetchy mixtures remain in order, 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 organization utilized to create the cathode material (lithium cobalt oxide) produced an incredibly fine powder, the granules of which enjoyed a high surface. That increased the potential risk of fire, so Sony was required to invent an operation to coarsen the particles.
An additional complication is the fact that lithium ion batteries have several failure modes. Recharging too fast or a lot of might cause lithium ions to plate out unevenly on the anode, creating growths called dendrites that could bridge the electrodes and produce a short circuit. Short circuits will also be induced by physically damaging battery power, or improperly getting rid of it, or simply putting it in to a pocket containing metal coins. Heat, whether internal or ambient, may cause the flammable electrolyte to produce gases that may react uncontrollably with other battery materials. This is called thermal runaway and it is virtually impossible to prevent once initiated.
So lithium ion batteries must be provided with numerous security features, including current interrupters and gas vent mechanisms. The standard such feature is the separator, a polymer membrane that prevents the electrodes from contacting the other person and developing a short circuit that will direct energy to the electrolyte. Separators also inhibit dendrites, while offering minimal potential to deal with ionic transport. To put it briefly, the separator may 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 employ elaborate and costly cooling and thermal management systems.
Some authorities ascribe Samsung’s battery crisis to difficulties with separators. Samsung officials did actually hint that this can be the truth after they revealed that a manufacturing flaw had led the negative and positive electrodes to get hold of one another. Regardless of if the separator is in fact responsible is not yet known.
At any rate, it is actually revealing that for Samsung, the problem is entirely battery, not the smartphone. The implication is the fact better quality control will solve the trouble. Without doubt it could help. However the manufacturing of commodity electronics is just too complex because there being a straightforward solution here. There has long been an organizational, cultural, and intellectual gulf between individuals who create batteries and those who create electronics, inhibiting manufacturers from contemplating applications and batteries as holistic systems. This estrangement continues to be further accentuated by 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. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, notebook designers introduced faster processors that generated more heat and required more power. The simplest and cheapest means for designers of lithium cells in order to meet this demand ended up being to thin out separators to create room for additional reactive material, creating thermal management problems and narrowed margins of safety.
Economic pressures further eroded these margins. Throughout the 1990s, the rechargeable lithium battery sector was a highly competitive, low-margin industry dominated by several firms based mainly in Japan. From around 2000, these businesses begun to move manufacturing to South Korea and China in operations initially plagued by extensive bugs and cell scrap rates.
All of these factors played a part from the notebook battery fire crisis of 2006. Numerous incidents prompted the greatest recalls in electronic products history for that date, involving some 9.6 million batteries produced by Sony. The corporation ascribed the trouble to faulty manufacturing that had contaminated cells with microscopic shards of metal. Establishing quality control will be a tall order provided that original equipment manufacturers disperse supply chains and outsource production.
Another issue is that makers of applications like notebooks and smartphones might not necessarily learn how to properly integrate outsourced lithium cells into safe battery packs and applications. Sony hinted just as much throughout the 2006 crisis. While admitting its quality control woes, the corporation 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 during those times (to be published in Technology & Culture in January 2017) demonstrates that there seemed to be some truth for this. Nearly 1 / 2 of the recalled batteries (4.2 million) in 2006 were for notebooks produced by Dell, a firm whose enterprise model was depending 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 countless incidents of catastrophic battery failures dating to 2002. As opposed, 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 our society. We still don’t have uniform safety protocols for numerous problems associated with 7.4v 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 get greater convenience, and profit, in electronics and electric automobiles. The hunt for more power and better voltage is straining the physical limits of lithium ion batteries, and then there are few technologies less forgiving in the chaotically single-minded method by which humankind are increasingly making their way on the planet. Scientists will work on safer alternatives, but we need to expect more unpleasant surprises through the existing technology in the interim.