Samsung’s massive global recall of their lithium ion battery manufacturer has yet again focused attention around 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 simply every week later it took the extraordinary step of asking customers to instantly power along the phones and exchange them for replacements. The Government Aviation Administration issued a powerful advisory asking passengers never to take advantage of the Note 7 or perhaps stow it in checked baggage. Airlines worldwide hastened to ban in-flight use and charging of 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 due to their extended run times. They are utilized in from power tools to e-cigarettes to Apple’s new wireless earbuds. And quite often, consumers bring them for granted. In many ways, this battery is the ultimate technological black box. Nearly all are bundled into applications and so are not generally accessible for retail sale. Accordingly, the technology is basically out of sight and away from mind, and it does not get the credit it deserves for an enabler of your mobile computing revolution. Indeed, the lithium rechargeable battery is as essential as the miniaturized microprocessor in connection with this. It might one day alter the face of automobile transport as a source of energy for electric vehicles.
Therefore it is 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 crafted a Faustian bargain with chemistry whenever they created this technology, whose origins date for the mid-1970s. Some variants use highly energetic but very volatile materials that need carefully engineered control systems. Generally, these systems serve as intended. Sometimes, though, the lithium genie gets out from the bottle, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
Such a thing happens more regularly than you may think. Ever 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 now 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 in 2010. During 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 tale of how Samsung botched the rollout from the latest weapon from the smartphone wars. It’s a story about the nature of innovation in the postindustrial era, one that highlights the unintended consequences from the information technology revolution and globalization throughout the last thirty years.
Basically, the real difference from a handy lithium battery as well as an incendiary one can be boiled as a result of three things: how industry manufactures these products, the way integrates them to the applications they power, and how users treat their battery-containing appliances. When a lithium rechargeable discharges, lithium ions layered to the negative electrode or anode (typically made from graphite) lose electrons, which go deep into an outside circuit to complete useful work. The ions then migrate via a conductive material called an electrolyte (usually an organic solvent) and become lodged in spaces in the positive electrode or cathode, a layered oxide structure.
There are a selection of lithium battery chemistries, and some are 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 effect is really a blaze that can be tough to extinguish owing to the battery’s self-contained flow of oxidant.
To make certain that such tetchy mixtures remain in check, battery manufacturing requires exacting quality control. Sony learned this lesson whenever it pioneered lithium rechargeable battery technology within the late 1980s. At first, the chemical process the organization used to create the cathode material (lithium cobalt oxide) produced an incredibly fine powder, the granules which possessed a high surface. That increased the potential risk of fire, so Sony was required to invent a process to coarsen the particles.
One more complication is lithium ion batteries have numerous failure modes. Recharging too fast or an excessive amount of may cause lithium ions to plate out unevenly around the anode, creating growths called dendrites that may bridge the electrodes and produce a short circuit. Short circuits can be induced by physically damaging battery power, or improperly disposing of it, or simply just putting it in to a pocket containing metal coins. Heat, whether internal or ambient, can cause the flammable electrolyte to create gases that could react uncontrollably with some other battery materials. This is called thermal runaway which is virtually impossible to prevent once initiated.
So lithium ion batteries must be provided with numerous safety features, including current interrupters and gas vent mechanisms. The standard such feature is definitely the separator, a polymer membrane that prevents the electrodes from contacting each other and developing a short circuit that could direct energy in the electrolyte. Separators also inhibit dendrites, while offering minimal effectiveness against ionic transport. In a nutshell, the separator may be the last line of defense against thermal runaway. Some larger multicell batteries, for example 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 problems with separators. Samsung officials did actually hint that this might be the way it is once they indicated that a manufacturing flaw had led the negative and positive electrodes to make contact with each other. Whether or not the separator is actually to blame is just not yet known.
At any rate, it really is revealing that for Samsung, the issue is entirely battery, not the smartphone. The implication is the fact that better quality control will solve the situation. Undoubtedly it might help. Although the manufacturing of commodity electronics is way too complex for there to get a fairly easy solution here. There is definitely an organizational, cultural, and intellectual gulf between people who create batteries and those that create electronics, inhibiting manufacturers from thinking about applications and batteries as holistic systems. This estrangement has been further accentuated by the offshoring and outsourcing of industrial research, development, and manufacturing, a results of the competitive pressures of globalization.
The outcome has become a protracted consumer product safety crisis. From the late 1990s and early 2000s, notebook designers introduced faster processors that generated more heat and required more power. The easiest and cheapest means for designers of lithium cells to satisfy this demand was to thin out separators to help make room for additional 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 covered with a few firms based mainly in Japan. From around 2000, these organizations began to move manufacturing to South Korea and China in operations initially plagued by extensive bugs and high cell scrap rates.
Many of these factors played a role from 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 made by Sony. The corporation ascribed the situation to faulty manufacturing which had contaminated cells with microscopic shards of metal. Establishing quality control is a tall order as long as original equipment manufacturers disperse supply chains and outsource production.
One other issue is 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 as much in 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 over the industry.
My analysis of U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recalls in those days (to be published in Technology & Culture in January 2017) implies that there could have been some truth for this. Nearly one half of the recalled batteries (4.2 million) in 2006 were for notebooks manufactured by Dell, an organization 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 hundreds of incidents of catastrophic battery failures dating to 2002. In contrast, relatively few reported incidents during that time involved Sony batteries in Sony computers.
In a way, then, the lithium ion battery fires are largely a consequence of how you have structured our society. We still don’t have uniform safety protocols for numerous problems concerning 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 find 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 then there are few technologies less forgiving of your chaotically single-minded way in which humans are increasingly making their way on the planet. Scientists work on safer alternatives, but we must expect many more unpleasant surprises in the existing technology within the interim.