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Power Technology

What's Wrong With Lithium Ion Batteries? 289

Posted by samzenpus
from the too-hot-to-handle dept.
An anonymous Coward writes "Lithium ion batteries short-circuit. They overheat. They burst into flames. The reasons behind the recent spate of problems with a technology invented by Sony more than a decade ago are complex and varied, making for one big engineering headache."
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What's Wrong With Lithium Ion Batteries?

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  • by arth1 (260657) on Thursday September 06, 2007 @04:20AM (#20491617) Homepage Journal
    Yeah, but they're great for bipolar disorders.
    And isn't that what a battery per definition has?
    • by fyngyrz (762201) * on Thursday September 06, 2007 @05:19AM (#20491937) Homepage Journal

      Well, many designs feature a salt and battery; personally, though, I always thought that just because you have bipolar to point at doesn't mean you get off without a charge. From where I sit, the whole bunch of them belong in cells.

      • by thewiz (24994) * on Thursday September 06, 2007 @09:15AM (#20493357)
        I find your attitude towards people with bipolar disorder simply revolting!
        • by brusk (135896) on Thursday September 06, 2007 @10:15AM (#20494031)
          Watt are you talking about? No reason get short and heighten the tension here. Bipolar disorder can be terminal.
          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by It'sYerMam (762418)
            Although it can 'ampere your life, it would give me a shock to find that it could also cause one to simply switch off. In parallel with other disorders, however, there are effects that cannot be rectified.
          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by dcapel (913969)
            Ohm my God! We have to stop with these loaded puns. I admit they have potential, but the current situation stretches it a bit far.
    • Re:Lithium Ions (Score:5, Informative)

      by 2.7182 (819680) on Thursday September 06, 2007 @06:31AM (#20492267)
      The joke - Lithium has been a standard treatment for bipolar disorders since the late 50's. It can work remarkably well. Funny thing is that it was discovered by giving it to rats. The rats calmed down though because it made them sick, and this was misinterpreted. But it works well in humans by coincidence.
      • Re:Lithium Ions (Score:4, Informative)

        by jimstapleton (999106) on Thursday September 06, 2007 @08:21AM (#20492931) Journal
        I thought it was something different.

        The goal was a treatment for personality disorders, but they were studying ammonia (or something similarly revolting sounding), and they had to put it with a co-molecule/atom to give it the right properties. They tried with several different associate atoms/moleculres. Anyway, the results showed no effect whatsoever, except with the co-molecule being lithium. They concluded the lithium was what they wanted, not the ammonia.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 06, 2007 @04:20AM (#20491619)
    Engineers face difficult challenges all the time. Everything is a tradeoff of sorts. Safety is routinely traded against cost and size. LiIon and LiPoly both have energy densities considerably higher than the next readily available technology (NiMH), thus the reason to drive towards the technology.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Daffy Duck (17350)
      Moronic? Boy, you're a tough customer.

      It was a somewhat interesting article that I wouldn't have seen if it hadn't been posted here. If you didn't find it interesting, does that make the author or submitter a moron? Who raised you?
    • by Moraelin (679338) on Thursday September 06, 2007 @05:47AM (#20492061) Journal
      Acually, if you actually RTFA, it raises exactly the same problems you write about, so I'm curious how you could call it moronic without, you know, calling yourself a moron ;)

      That said, I still have to wonder about some tradeoffs. Essentially, the way I read the article:

      1. A lot (if not most) of the increasing risk was in the name of cutting costs as such, or cost per capacity. E.g., the original Cobalt, which was expensive but apparently safe, got then replaced with Nickel, then with even cheaper Nickel-Manganese alloy. I'm not sure how that can be a problem, but _something_ (this or something else) along the way apparently turned a safe battery design into a potential time bomb.

      2. (Or maybe 1a.) They seem to be blaming the factory in China where everyone outsourced the actual manufacturing to. Again in the name of cutting costs. Maybe it's just blame-shifting and finger pointing, but it raises a valid theoretical concern. It's not easy to know, once a battery is assembled and sealed, what really is inside. If, theoretically, they shafted you for an extra buck, how would you know? You can put all sorts of checks in place in your own factory, but once you've outsourced it, it's out of your control.

      It even gives you an example of what can go wrong in that scenario. If the separating membrane doesn't soften and collapse at a given temperature, the battery essentially just lost the designed protection against catching fire. What if someone replaces that foil with something cheaper, but which doesn't work that way?

      3. (Or maybe 1b.) Apparently at least one batch is suspected to have been manufactured with counterfeit materials. I have to wonder if this wasn't just because they were cheaper. I.e., cost cutting again.

      4. Not cost cutting, but competitive advantage again, apparently some laptop manufacturers recharge their batteries more "aggressively" (read: exceed the rated recharge current) so they can get a minor competitive edge there. It apparently (according to TFA) causes the battery to vibrate, and might cause particles to impale the membrane and shortcircuit the battery.

      So while I'm not against capitalism or anything, it makes me, you know, wonder. Maybe the drive to cut costs can be taken to dangerous extremes? Just a thought.

      Yes, it should fix itself, companies would in an ideal world avoid loss of reputation due to faulty products, etc. But sometimes it's too late. E.g., it's already suspected that a plane crash was due to a laptop igniting in the hold. E.g, an even worse case was when in 1937 a pharma company offered a liquid antibiotic where the actual antibiotic wasn't solluble in water, but someone found out it was solluble in diethylene glycol [fda.gov], a deadly poison. It was what prompted the FDA to mandate extensive testing for medicine. (And speaking of diethylene glycol, it seems to keep reappearing recently in Chinese-manufactured toothpaste. No doubt because it's cheaper than something less toxic.) Etc.

      Do I have a solution? Nope. It makes me wonder, though.
      • by Znork (31774)
        "So while I'm not against capitalism or anything, it makes me, you know, wonder. Maybe the drive to cut costs can be taken to dangerous extremes? Just a thought."

        "Do I have a solution?"

        Actually, there's a very simple capitalistic free market solution to the very problem LiIon batteries pose.

        Legislate that LiIon batteries must use standardized battery format and be consumer changeable.

        Instead of the current product tying market you'd get one where consumers themselves could chose wether to use exploding batt
        • by ThosLives (686517) on Thursday September 06, 2007 @06:51AM (#20492375) Journal

          Legislate that LiIon batteries must use standardized battery format and be consumer changeable.

          So basically, you're advocating the "one size fits none" approach to batteries?

          While I understand the idea here - the ubiquity of things like AA, AAA, C, D, etc. batteries is testament to that - legislating a technical configuration in my mind is always a bad thing. Legislation should just say "this is what the [product] must do," not "This is what the product should be." Otherwise you get strange issues like when hybrid cars came out, because the EPA regulations mandated that if the city fuel economy was indeed actually higher than the highway, you could only write the highway for both (that law has now been modified, but at some notable cost to society).

          I would rather allow OEMs to be able to package cells in whatever form factor and styling they wish for custom devices like laptops - the visual appearance alone between laptops from different manufacturers should be a good indication of why a mandated standard battery pack would not be good - it would actually prevent innovation if the battery pack became a limiting design factor. The simplest example: you can't have a dimension smaller than the smallest dimension of the mandated battery packs.

          • by Znork (31774)
            "the ubiquity of things like AA, AAA, C, D, etc."

            Not to mention the button formats, small enough to fit the smallest iPod or keyring appliance.

            'Legislation should just say "this is what the [product] must do,"'

            And that would be "allow the consumer to change it for other interchangeable formats".

            "it would actually prevent innovation if the battery pack became a limiting design factor."

            There's nothing preventing a battery pack composed of individual smaller batteries, combining to almost any shape you want. A
            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              by 1u3hr (530656)
              There's nothing preventing a battery pack composed of individual smaller batteries, combining to almost any shape you want. As long as you could change the individual cells that'd be fine.

              That's the situation now actually. There are shops here (in Hong Kong) that will sell you a third-party laptop battery; or they'll crack open your old one and rebuild it with standard LiOn cells. Similar ro laser toner refillers. Don't they have this elsewhere? Perhaps liability concerns prevent it in the US.

              • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

                by TheRaven64 (641858)
                The first laptop I owned (386) had a proprietary battery. On closer inspection, it turned out that this was a simple enclosure containing 9 (or maybe 12) C cells wired together. Cracking it open, replacing the cells, and duck taping it back together was a lot cheaper than buying a new one from the manufacturer.

                I'm a lot more wary of third party battery replacements with Lithium-based cells. Once you get to this kind of energy density, you basically have a bomb and a small circuit trying to persuade it

            • by ThosLives (686517)

              There's nothing preventing a battery pack composed of individual smaller batteries,

              That's a reasonable initial assumption, but given what I know about batteries this isn't always feasible. One of the main issues with "modern" rechargeable batteries is that they require some fairly substantial integration effort - it's not like the current button cells or even "standard" sizes where you can just stack cells together; I'm pretty sure there has to be more integration effort than that. My evidence is the curr

        • by Detritus (11846) on Thursday September 06, 2007 @08:01AM (#20492777) Homepage
          Bad idea. Battery chemistry and construction are rapidly evolving. From what I've read on the design of devices that use Lithium batteries, the power subsystem (charger, power supply, battery) must be designed as a matched system. The limited margin for error makes old-style design techniques unsafe. These are not generic batteries, which can be substituted without much thought. The charging circuits, safety circuits, and power supply must be designed to match the characteristics of a specific battery. The safety and performance of the power subsystem are only guaranteed when you use the proper battery.
        • by mypalmike (454265) on Thursday September 06, 2007 @11:14AM (#20494819) Homepage
          Actually, there's a very simple capitalistic free market solution to the very problem LiIon batteries pose. Legislate that LiIon batteries must use standardized battery format and be consumer changeable.

          This is either clever sarcasm, or a complete failure to understand the concept.
      • by 1u3hr (530656)
        It's not easy to know, once a battery is assembled and sealed, what really is inside. If, theoretically, they shafted you for an extra buck, how would you know? You can put all sorts of checks in place in your own factory, but once you've outsourced it, it's out of your control.

        When you contract manufacture, you normally have your own, or an independent, quality control. Especially in China; I've been involved with this. As for "how would you know?", you'd check a random sample. Test and then cut them op

      • by solitas (916005)
        from TFA: "I have 100% confidence in the Japanese battery manufacturers," he says. "And my guess is that they never had the problems they're seeing now when the same batteries were manufactured from start to finish in Japan."

        A telling statement.

      • by hey! (33014) on Thursday September 06, 2007 @09:12AM (#20493327) Homepage Journal
        Well the tough thing about economics (and business) are the things you can't know.

        You have this process of designing, manufacturing, and assembling a product that has worked well for a number of years. You can outsource the assembly to China, and you should get the same results as you did with your Japanese plant. Your Chinese partners are supposed to set up an identical assembly line, train the workers exactly the same way, etc.

        On paper, you seem to have the same process, only cheaper. On the other hand, you don't know if the Chinese workers hired will be as good as your Japanese workers, even if you train them identically. You don't know if your Chinese partner, who is making his profit out of the difference between his costs and your costs to do the same thing, isn't cutting some corners. You don't know if the lax Chinese regulatory process will affect how the work is done or the performance or attitude of the workers.

        On the other hand, if you don't do it, you don't know if your competitors will do it and undercut your prices.

        We talk a lot about taking risks in capitalism, but sometimes we talk as if risks always pay off. They don't. Part of the process of capitalism are businesses trying strategy B, which should be equivalent to strategy A, and finding out that it isn't. Maybe you go back to A, or you try to tweak B to get the same results as A. Big trends like the dot com bubble or outsourcing to India or China sweep a lot of people along who aren't really ready to assume to risk or prepared to make things work. By in large the answer tends to be it sort of works, but not quite as well as you would hope, and you have to master the differences.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by dgun (1056422)

      Engineers face difficult challenges all the time....

      Safety is routinely traded against cost and size.



      And if safety, cost, and size were not "specified", batteries would be huge, cost $25,000 a piece, and would explode when dropped.

  • by Groo Wanderer (180806) <charlie AT semiaccurate DOT com> on Thursday September 06, 2007 @04:22AM (#20491627) Homepage
    http://www.theinquirer.net/?article=14417 [theinquirer.net]

    I wrote that before batteries going boom was the latest fashion trend. The problem is simple, you have a lot of energy in a small area and people crying out for higher densities. If _ANYTHING_ goes wrong, you have a high likelihood for a lot of energy released in a short amount of time.

    Couple this with reactive/flamable substance that make up batteries, and you have a lightshow. There is no magic to it all, simple physics. Lots of energy released around reactive things, you need both for a modern battery.

    Some designs minimize the risk, none remove it. As always, nothing new under the sun.

                    -Charlie
    • by arivanov (12034)
      simple physics. And chemistry your honour, and chemistry.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by KiloByte (825081)
        Except, chemistry is nothing but a certain application of physics (-> full quote [whoop.as]).
        • by arivanov (12034)
          Except, Physics is nothing but a certain application of Mathematics
          • by MrHanky (141717)
            And mathematics is various ludicrously complex and circumlocutory ways of stating that 1 equals 1. Which is why I always end an argument where I find my opponent to be right with saying "I told you so".
            • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

              by Pope (17780)

              And mathematics is various ludicrously complex and circumlocutory ways of stating that 1 equals 1.

              Yes, but that only works for standardised values of 1. As we know, larger values of 1 can totally mess things up.
          • by Goaway (82658) on Thursday September 06, 2007 @06:36AM (#20492283) Homepage
            Wrong. You cannot derive physical laws from mathematical theorems. You can, however, derive chemical laws from physical laws (although it may be extremely hard to do in practice).
            • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 06, 2007 @07:12AM (#20492493)

              You cannot derive physical laws from mathematical theorems


              This is a fairly recent (i.e. C19) viewpoint, reflecting changing understanding of what mathematics is. Neoplatonists such as Galileo and Kepler, and synthetic geometers adopting the classical style, would have been happy to tell you that mathematics is a perfect way of describing nature.

              Then the axiomatisers, perhaps heralded by Leibniz (whose more philosophical discussions on notation etc were of less immediate influence than his calculus, even though one begat the other), decided that mathematics was nothing more than a set of rules for symbol manipulation. Hence, for example, the arguments over Euclid's parallel postulate being initially connected with the question of whether geometry is "true" in the sense that it represents physical space.

              In essence, you are vacuously correct, because today, mathematics without choosing some axiom system cannot do anything - it is merely an acceptance of "logic" without any definitions or rules to work from. But if we choose our axiom system to incorporate sufficient fundamental laws of physics, then physics becomes a branch of mathematics; just as if we choose our axiom system to be Euclid's definitions and postulates, Euclidean geometry becomes a branch of mathematics.
            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by arivanov (12034)
              Really...

              I hate to break your illusions, but a significant portion of the so called physics "laws" are actually mathematical derivations from abstract non-Law concepts and/or results of logical and philosophical "mental experiments".

              Just one example: Ideal gas laws are surprise, surprise a derivation from the Shroedinger equation for a black box problem. AFAIK the Shroedinger equation is not a law. It is a result of a mental experiment construct. By the way you can also derive a significant portion of the s
              • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

                by Goaway (82658)

                It is a result of a mental experiment construct.

                Yes, and you can make any number of mental experiments and end up with any number of "physical laws", but physics adds the requirement that you have to be representing reality. Mathematics alone cannot do that. You cannot through pure mathematics know which laws to choose and which to discard. Thus, physics is more than the sum of the mathematics it uses. This is not really the case with chemistry (in theory - in practice, we are not good enough at this yet to actually derive everything from the fundamenta

    • It doesn't matter whether it's a battery, a fuel cell or whatever, you'll have a shit load of energy in a small volume.
      • by cnettel (836611)
        We still have more in sugar. Despite this, sugar is relatively safe at most temperatures. Sugar in a water solution even more so, while still reasonably potent. The uncatalyzed chain reaction (a.k.a. fire) is simply not favorable in anything close to normal conditions there. The story is a bit less simple for LiI batteries. (Now, a water solution wouldn't be ideal due to the risk of explosion through boiling, but that's another matter. It's still a rather simple fact that the energy densities involved aren
    • by sslo (1143755) on Thursday September 06, 2007 @05:07AM (#20491891)
      "Couple this with reactive/flamable substance that make up batteries, and you have a lightshow. ... Some designs minimize the risk, none remove it."

      This is (lately) misinformation. It's basically true of any conventional LiIon battery type. But unlike the LiIon chemistry in common use today in laptop batteries, the newer lithium phosphate (LiFePO4) LiIon chemistry is inherently non-flammable and non-explosive. It's also considerably less energy dense than standard LiIon chemistries and more expensive to manufacture, thus big business' near-total lack of interest in rushing to develop it for consumer devices over the past several years. But it is now used in a few high current drain applications where conventional LiIon would be a poor choice, e.g. in some DeWalt power tools. When the cost comes down enough, you'll see lots more of these batteries, notably in electric vehicles, where they effectively eliminate laptop-type LiIon's barely-restrained violent urge to turn vehicles into smoldering heaps of rubble.

      See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lithium_iron_phosphat e_battery/ [wikipedia.org]
  • and look at what's right. First thing that comes to mind, no other abbreviation sounds as cool as Li-on.

    Rawr.
  • by joto (134244) on Thursday September 06, 2007 @04:30AM (#20491685)

    Anything that contains lots of energy in a small and compact volume, is dangerous. Explosives, and modern batteries, are really not that different. Both contain a huge amount of energy, in a comparatively small area. As battery technology improves, batteries will become even more dangerous.

    With old heavy duty, or alkaline batteries, the worst that could happen was usually a leak. While annoying, it usually didn't pose any dangers. Modern batteries catch fire and explode. Eventually, we'll probably have a nuclear powerplant inside our mp3-players, at which time, they will hopefully include some additional safeguards, such as a fuse. But all modern batteries (lithium, lithium-ion, lithium-polymer) will explode or catch fire, if there's a serious enough malfunction.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by mwvdlee (775178)
      I don't really see how storing energy in a high density is inheritantly dangerous. It all depends on how you store it and then there isn't really any practical limit. Any battery will explode if a serious enough malfunction occurs, the question is what you consider "serious".
      • by Eivind (15695) <eivindorama@gmail.com> on Thursday September 06, 2007 @08:27AM (#20492969) Homepage
        It's inherently dangerous because very high energy-densities nessecarily mean that there's a lot of energy there to be released. Also, everything for that reaction to occur, must be contained inside the battery. (well, if you exclude air-breathing batteries)

        It can be made more or less safe, but normally at a cost of reduced energy/pound. This ain't just so for batteries, but for literally *anything* storing large amounts of energy.

        Natural gas has certain failure-modes that are ahem, unpleasant. The failure-modes become more likely as you increase the pressure and/or decrease the mass of the container used to hold the gas.

        A flywheel used to store a large amount of energy would be unpleasant if it where to ever disintegrate, get out of balance, or somehow drop out of the bearings. All of which become more likely the higher the energy stored and the less material used for securing against these possibilities.

        And yeah, batteries, especially those with high energy-densities, have unpleasant failure-modes. If you where willing to accept a twice-as-heavy battery with the same energy-content, these could be made less likely. Hell, even if you where willing to pay more for an equal-capacity battery, the failures could be made less likely. Still, they're always gonna be there.
    • Modern batteries catch fire and explode. Eventually, we'll probably have a nuclear powerplant inside our mp3-players, at which time, they will hopefully include some additional safeguards, such as a fuse.
      ...Perhaps some ppor word choices there, considering the current (DC) state of affairs; I think you should be expecting a knock on the door from the NSA any moment now.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Steve001 (955086)

      joto wrote:

      Anything that contains lots of energy in a small and compact volume, is dangerous. Explosives, and modern batteries, are really not that different. Both contain a huge amount of energy, in a comparatively small area. As battery technology improves, batteries will become even more dangerous.

      With old heavy duty, or alkaline batteries, the worst that could happen was usually a leak. While annoying, it usually didn't pose any dangers. Modern batteries catch fire and explode. Eventually, we'll pro

  • I think some shitty Fab is to blame for these batteries popping.

    3 years ago, you rarely heard of batteries popping.

    lest we forget the markets flooded with cheap aftermarket chargers?
    • by Hal_Porter (817932) on Thursday September 06, 2007 @04:42AM (#20491747)
      I found an interesting article that supports that theory -

      http://www.electronicsweekly.com/blogs/engineering -design-problems/2007/09/whats-wrong-with-lithiumi on-ba-1.html [electronicsweekly.com]

      But Don Sadoway, a professor of Materials Chemistry at MIT who is an expert in advanced battery technologies, worries about off-shoring of a chemistry he asserts "needs to be treated with respect."

      "I have 100% confidence in the Japanese battery manufacturers," he says. "And my guess is that they never had the problems theyre seeing now when the same batteries were manufactured from start to finish in Japan."

      He notes that one of the challenges with Li-ion batteries in particular is that it is very difficult to verify that the manufacturing and assembly is being performed according to specifications. Thats because once its assembled into a battery pack, the device cannot be inspected from the outside nor can it be easily tested.

      Sadoway points to the separator material between the electrodes as an example. Acting like a kind of fuse, it is designed to soften and collapse at a specific temperature, causing the battery to essentially go into an open circuit condition and die.

      In fact, he wonders why that didnt happen in the case of the Dell laptop that burst into flames last year.

      "You could think you are specifying a porous polypropylene material for the separator, but once the thing is packaged up you would have no way of knowing what you actually got. Even under the best of circumstances, you can get screwed by your own job shop. What if the workers took a short cut and substituted the original material with cardboard?"

      Even better there's a link to that article in the writeup! Pretty handy.
      • by bentcd (690786)

        "You could think you are specifying a porous polypropylene material for the separator, but once the thing is packaged up you would have no way of knowing what you actually got. Even under the best of circumstances, you can get screwed by your own job shop. What if the workers took a short cut and substituted the original material with cardboard?"

        Even better there's a link to that article in the writeup! Pretty handy.

        One would think it's really easy to figure out what you got: you sample one battery out of every thousand (or whatever), open it up and do a thorough inspection of its contents. If it's not up to snuff, you scrap the entire shipment and a factory owner in China commits suicide.

        • by jamesh (87723)

          If it's not up to snuff, you scrap the entire shipment

          This is roughly the way that they already operate in China, except that if it's not up to snuff, they flog it off to Sony at a discount.

          (kidding, of course)
    • by rsmith-mac (639075) on Thursday September 06, 2007 @06:04AM (#20492153)
      No, this isn't recent, it's only more sensationalized and is affecting more people overall because of the increased deployment of devices using the technology. Heck, the PowerBook 5300 [wikipedia.org] when first released in the early-to-mid 90's was blowing up due to its LiIon battery - somewhat amusingly that was Sony made too.

      Batteries will continue to periodically blow up as long as we use them, it's the inherent result of creating devices with so much energy density.

  • Fortunately (Score:5, Interesting)

    by evanbd (210358) on Thursday September 06, 2007 @04:35AM (#20491723)

    Fortunately, we have supercapacitors. While they're not there yet for energy density (still about 10x too little) they're rapidly improving. 10x isn't much at the rate these things have been improving, and there are plenty of labs with pieces that are much better than currently available commercial offerings, but that still need development work. If I had to guess, I'd say it's 5 years until the first supercaps appear in serious commercial use, and less than 10 until LiIon has gone the way of NiMH.

    Of course, if you believe the rumors [arstechnica.com] then it might be even faster than that -- we might be seeing serious applications in a year or so.

    I, for one, will be glad to give LiIon a proper burial. But until then, we work with what's available.

    • by Colin Smith (2679)
      The next generation of batteries will probably be Lithium Sulphur technology. Ultracapacitors are really solving a different problem.
       
      • by evanbd (210358)
        How are they solving a different problem? Obviously right now they're not suited to replace LiIon batteries, and they're getting used to solve other problems, but if the energy density catches up to LiIons, then won't ultracaps replace them as soon as they're cost effective?
        • by Hackeron (704093)
          Err, the way I understand it, supercapacitors would be great to utilize available energy, say when you use your breaks in your car, and then feed the energy slowly to a battery. So other than instant charging, what advantages would a super capacitor have to a battery?
          • by evanbd (210358)
            The obvious ones: higher energy density (meaning smaller and lighter, or longer life between charges), higher efficiency (and therefore less heat generation on charge / discharge), no flammable components, higher charge / discharge rates (and therefore faster charge / higher power density). All but the first (energy density) are available now, and they only lag batteries by about a factor of 10 in energy density. But if the stuff people have in labs turns into real products, or the rumors in the article I
        • by Colin Smith (2679)
          It's not ideal for batteries to push big currents. Capacitors can. I expect capacitors to be used as a buffer in front of the batteries.

          I'll believe the energy density improvement when I see it.
           
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Stevecrox (962208)
      You realise capacitors explode if you put to much energy into them right? So your argueing instead of using a technology that builds up and catches fire we instead compress the energy into a smaller density in a design which can and does explode. Sure there might be easier ways to contain an explosion. But its not better it just presents different problems.
      • You realise capacitors explode if you put to much energy into them right?So, now we are going to trade explosive gasoline for explosive capacitors. And yes, Gas tanks exploded back in the 50's and 60's. Then simple re-designs took care of that. I suspect we will do the same for our new electric cars.
    • by sentientbrendan (316150) on Thursday September 06, 2007 @05:29AM (#20491989)
      As others have mentioned, the problem with the existing batteries is energy density. All fuel sources have the exact some problem, from capacitors, to uranium, to gasoline. They can release all that energy dangerously under the wrong conditions. This isn't a problem for which there is any easy fix, other than being really careful to insure those conditions are never met.

      Existing capacitors in your computer can make quite a boom...
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Alioth (221270)
      Depending on the characteristics of the supercapacitor, they can be even more dangerous. Capacitors generally can discharge at incredibly high rates. With the high energy density of an ultracapacitor, the effects will be spectacular.

      If you want to see what just a few nanofarads of charge can do, take a look at a Tesla coil, or perhaps this - the Destruct-o-Tron: http://www.electricstuff.co.uk/destructotron.html [electricstuff.co.uk]
    • by aliquis (678370)
      The way of nimh? Am I the only one who prefers nimh over li-ion? Mostly so because I can get them in AA/AAA/whatever thought. Also I like to know that they don't drop a lot in capacity.
  • by feepness (543479) on Thursday September 06, 2007 @04:54AM (#20491805) Homepage
    It MUST be bad!
  • by nietsch (112711) on Thursday September 06, 2007 @05:53AM (#20492101) Homepage Journal
    The batteries that are causing troubles now are all Lithium polymer batteries. The electrolyte-fluid in them has been replaced with a polymer that amongst other things made it possible to replace the heavy metal cylinder with aluminium/plastic packaging and make the battery in all kinds of forms.
    Unfortunately, at the same time the chemistry of the cells was changed such that if a thermal runaway ever happened, the venting gasses would ignite with oxygen and would ignite the cells next to it too. That is exactly what is happening.
    I am rather supprised that no one yet has mentioned A123 systems. They make/market a new type of lithium-(nano)phosphate cell, that has none of the drawbacks of lithium-polymer batteries. They will not catch fire in a thermal runaway or when pierced, can be much more abused than LiPos and have a much longer lifespan to boot (2000 cycles instead of 500). It's no wonder that these batteries will be in the next generation of hybrid cars, as they weigh half as much as the NiMH batteries used now (LiPo would be too dangerous in a collision) and can generate much more current too. (~10C for NiMH, ~40C for A123).
    So there is hope one the battery technology front, it's just that the current best option is a bit dangerous.
  • by enrevanche (953125) on Thursday September 06, 2007 @06:40AM (#20492313)
    They were first released commercially by Sony, they were not invented by Sony.
  • Solution! (Score:2, Flamebait)

    by Fizzl (209397)
    Don't pack so much energy into such small package! Use conventional lead batteries instead!

    Seriously, the problem is that the technology has excellent properties of low internal resistance and high capacity per mass. If the pack shorts for reason or another, all the energy is released in short order, causing it to practically explode.

    There is also another problem. The charging. The Li-Ion/Polymer batteries will not chemically stop charging when they are "full" in terms of what it is supposed to hold. You ca
  • I've been waiting to see ethanol-fueled microturbines [wikipedia.org] in the mass market for a while now, and have so far been disappointed. They're a bit big for phones but ought to work in laptops and would IMO be spectacular for power tools. They pose their own dangers, though; what happens when a fuel cell ruptures and the turbine turns into a flamethrower?
  • by harlemjoe (304815) on Thursday September 06, 2007 @07:50AM (#20492701)
    The Coward who posted this writes:

    The reasons behind the recent spate of problems with a technology invented by Sony more than a decade ago are complex and varied,

    No, the reasons are not ambiguous, they are clearly outlined. There is nothing wrong with the technology, the entire problem is the lack of quality control in battery factories in China. Sony is not the only one to get screwed by poor QC in Chinese factories, so has Mattell who are scrambling to recall ~20 million toys painted with lead paint [www.ctv.ca], and J&J, who are scrambling to recall 10 million fake diabetes kits [bloomberg.com]

    In the article itself, fingers are clearly pointed

    But Don Sadoway, a professor of Materials Chemistry at MIT who is an expert in advanced battery technologies, worries about off-shoring of a chemistry he asserts "needs to be treated with respect."

    "I have 100% confidence in the Japanese battery manufacturers," he says. "And my guess is that they never had the problems they're seeing now when the same batteries were manufactured from start to finish in Japan."

    I don't think anybody realizes just how shoddy quality control is in China. Just as there is absolutely no respect for intellectual property, the Chinese, being new to capitalism, don't understand the value of quality control. They've never had to suffer the consequences of legal action.

    The culture just does not exist. Some argue that this is a good sign, a necessary phase in capitalism that China is passing through that the USA passed through once before [boston.com].

    I'm not trying to be a troll. China I'm sure will improve and their industry is surely chastened by the huge hue and cry around the world. But until things get better, watch out, and for more than just exploding batteries:


    Just setting the record straight ...
    • by DrXym (126579)
      A China Airlines jet blows up, and company officials paint the logo off of the wreckage.

      Just a point of clarification - China Airlines is Taiwan's national carrier. Taiwan should have a clue about quality control even if its airline does not.

    • by amorsen (7485)
      A China Airlines jet blows up , and company officials paint the logo off of the wreckage.

      Every airline does that.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by bughunter (10093)
      I'm in charge of battery production at a small aerospace company. We buy COTS cells, screen them functionally, and select cells with matched performance characteristics to build 28-volt avionics and ordnance batteries.

      Originally, our NiCd and LiIon cells were made in the US, and our screening yields were in the range of 75 to 95%, depending on the chemistry, manufacturer, and screening criteria.

      Over the past three years, US manufacturers for the NiCd cells we buy have all outsourced their manufacturing

  • Didn't Bell Labs and university researchers come up with Lithium Ion technology. Sony were first to market commercially, but I've never seen anything crediting them with the invention of the technology.
  • It's all about size, weight, and the abusive charge cycle that laptops and cellphones are required to go through. From what I've read, the thing that really stands out for lithium batteries is the lack of cell memory. Here's a link comparing 4 battery types: http://batteryuniversity.com/partone-21.htm [batteryuniversity.com]
  • if they hadn't bloated their OS and Apps so much, we could get away with far lower energy densities for Laptops... :) And if anyone questions this, just go and ask some of the old hands how much life they got on their old DOS and Win 3.1 laptops... I could run my old DOS based laptop for almost 20 hours on a full charge with just old-fashioned Ni-Cads in the battery compartment... and I could easily swap them out and use ordinary batteries if I couldn't get to a mains socket... Now you're lucky if you can g
  • by dtjohnson (102237) on Thursday September 06, 2007 @10:44AM (#20494437)
    AMD and Intel kept making more powerful processors for desktop machines. Laptops had to become more powerful to stay competitive in performance with desktops. Then AMD came out with new low power processors and people started putting Pentium 4 parts in laptops to compete (fortunately, Intel finally managed to come up with the Pentium M a year later or the problem would be 100x worse), which put battery makers under enormous pressure to come out with products that could supply the power. The Li battery is basically sound but the technology was pushed beyond what it was capable of. Too much power in too small a space.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a rigged demo. - Andy Finkel, computer guy

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