Samsung’s massive global recall of the lithium battery has once more 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 every week later it took the extraordinary step of asking customers to immediately power down the phones and exchange them for replacements. The Federal Aviation Administration issued a solid advisory asking passengers to not take advantage of the Note 7 as well as stow it in checked baggage. Airlines around the world hastened to ban in-flight use and charging in the device.
Lithium rechargeable batteries are ubiquitous and, thankfully, the vast majority work just fine. These are industry’s favored power source for wireless applications owing to their long run times. They are used in from power tools to e-cigarettes to Apple’s new wireless earbuds. And most of the time, consumers bring them with no consideration. In many ways, this battery may be the ultimate technological black box. Nearly all are bundled into applications and are not generally available for retail sale. Accordingly, the technology is essentially away from sight and away from mind, and yes it does not have the credit it deserves as being an enabler of the mobile computing revolution. Indeed, the lithium rechargeable battery is as essential as the miniaturized microprocessor in this regard. It could one day change the face of automobile transport as a power source 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 created 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 which require carefully engineered control systems. Generally, these systems act as intended. Sometimes, though, the lithium genie gets from the bottle, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
This occurs more frequently than you might think. Since the late 1990s and early 2000s, we have seen a drum roll of product safety warnings and recalls of 12v lithium battery that have burned or blown up practically every kind of wireless application, including cameras, notebooks, hoverboards, vaporizers, and today smartphones. More ominously, lithium batteries have burned in commercial jet aircraft, a likely consider 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. During the early 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 story of how Samsung botched the rollout of its latest weapon from the smartphone wars. It’s a story about the nature of innovation from the postindustrial era, one that highlights the unintended consequences in the information technology revolution and globalization over the past thirty years.
Essentially, the visible difference from a handy lithium battery plus an incendiary one can be boiled down to three things: how industry manufactures these products, the way it integrates them in to the applications they power, and exactly how users treat their battery-containing appliances. Whenever a lithium rechargeable discharges, lithium ions layered to the negative electrode or anode (typically made of graphite) lose electrons, which get into another circuit to accomplish useful work. The ions then migrate by way of a conductive material generally known as an electrolyte (usually an organic solvent) and be lodged in spaces within the positive electrode or cathode, a layered oxide structure.
There are lots of lithium battery chemistries, and a few tend to be more stable as opposed to others. Some, like lithium cobalt oxide, a standard formula in consumer electronics, are really flammable. When such variants do ignite, the end result is a blaze that may be challenging to extinguish due to the battery’s self-contained availability of oxidant.
To ensure such tetchy mixtures remain in check, battery manufacturing requires exacting quality control. Sony learned this lesson if it pioneered lithium rechargeable battery technology from the late 1980s. At first, the chemical process the corporation used to make your cathode material (lithium cobalt oxide) produced a really fine powder, the granules in which possessed a high surface. That increased the risk of fire, so Sony needed to invent a process to coarsen the particles.
One more complication is lithium ion batteries have several failure modes. Recharging too quickly or excessive might cause lithium ions to plate out unevenly in the anode, creating growths called dendrites that may bridge the electrodes and cause a short circuit. Short circuits can also be induced by physically damaging a battery, or improperly disposing of it, or simply putting it into a pocket containing metal coins. Heat, whether internal or ambient, might cause the flammable electrolyte to create gases which may react uncontrollably with other battery materials. This is called thermal runaway and it is virtually impossible to avoid once initiated.
So lithium ion batteries needs to be provided with numerous safety features, including current interrupters and gas vent mechanisms. The most basic such feature will be the separator, a polymer membrane that prevents the electrodes from contacting each other and building a short circuit that could direct energy to the electrolyte. Separators also inhibit dendrites, while offering minimal resistance to ionic transport. To put it briefly, the separator is definitely the last collection of defense against thermal runaway. Some larger multicell batteries, including 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 case when they established that a manufacturing flaw had led the negative and positive electrodes to contact each other. If the separator is really in the wrong is just not yet known.
At any rate, it is actually revealing that for Samsung, the thing is entirely the battery, not the smartphone. The implication is the fact higher quality control will solve the situation. Certainly it would help. Although the manufacturing of commodity electronics is simply too complex because there to become a straightforward solution here. There has always been an organizational, cultural, and intellectual gulf between those that create batteries and people who create electronics, inhibiting manufacturers from considering applications and batteries as holistic systems. This estrangement has been further accentuated with the offshoring and outsourcing of industrial research, development, and manufacturing, a consequence of the competitive pressures of globalization.
The outcome has become 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 in order to meet this demand would be 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. In 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 organizations begun to move manufacturing to South Korea and China in operations initially plagued by extensive bugs and high cell scrap rates.
Most of these factors played a part within the notebook battery fire crisis of 2006. Numerous incidents prompted the largest recalls in consumer electronics history to that particular date, involving some 9.6 million batteries created by Sony. The company ascribed the trouble to faulty manufacturing that had contaminated cells with microscopic shards of metal. Establishing quality control is a tall order provided that original equipment manufacturers disperse supply chains and outsource production.
One other issue is the fact 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 through 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 across the industry.
My analysis of United states Consumer Product Safety Commission recalls at that time (being 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 business whose business design was based upon integrating cheap outsourced parts and minimizing in-house R&D costs. In August 2006, the latest York Times cited a former Dell employee who claimed the 02dexspky had suppressed countless incidents of catastrophic battery failures dating to 2002. In contrast, relatively few reported incidents at 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 society. We still don’t have uniform safety protocols for a wide variety of problems concerning 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 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 in the chaotically single-minded manner in which human beings are increasingly making their way on earth. Scientists work on safer alternatives, but we must expect much more unpleasant surprises through the existing technology within the interim.