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Power Technology

What's Wrong With Lithium Ion Batteries? 289

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 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.
  • by Daffy Duck ( 17350 ) on Thursday September 06, 2007 @04:27AM (#20491661) Homepage
    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 mwvdlee ( 775178 ) on Thursday September 06, 2007 @04:47AM (#20491769) Homepage
    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 Bastard of Subhumani ( 827601 ) on Thursday September 06, 2007 @04:52AM (#20491797) Journal

    safety is never dropped to cut costs or size. a single lawsuit showing otherwise and the company is ruined.
    Here on planet Earth, Ford are still [] in business. []
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 06, 2007 @04:58AM (#20491829)

    Never engineered a single thing in your life have you boy. safety is never dropped to cut costs or size. a single lawsuit showing otherwise and the company is ruined.
    Are you kidding me? Safety is analyzed in a cost-benefit analysis just like everything else. The greater the potential risk and potential liabilities, the greater importance safety will take. This is why nuclear engineers spend a lot more time engineering safety systems on nuclear reactors than a hardware engineer worries about the safety of a PS3 that could catch fire. To a hardware engineer a QA failure means that a lot of people complain about their iPhones that won't work. To an aeronautical engineer it means that a 747 just exploded over the Atlantic Ocean. You don't honestly think that the investment in safety is the same in each of these cases do you?
  • by bentcd ( 690786 ) <> on Thursday September 06, 2007 @05:08AM (#20491895) Homepage

    safety is never dropped to cut costs or size. a single lawsuit showing otherwise and the company is ruined.
    On the contrary, safety is routinely dropped to cut costs and size. If we didn't do this, then everything would be infinitely expensive and we wouldn't ever have gotten as far as to stone tools.
  • by clickclickdrone ( 964164 ) on Thursday September 06, 2007 @05:22AM (#20491957)
    Indeed. The car industry for one has a calculation on fixing faults to the effect that if the lawsuit is cheaper than the fix, they leave it. Basically, there is a dollar value applied to a human life and any fault is analysed and a possible headcount caused by the fault calculated. If the repair is less than that total, the do it.
  • 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...
  • 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 [], 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 Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Thursday September 06, 2007 @05:48AM (#20492071)
    Depends entirely on the profit. If you're able to sell enough units because you're cheaper or more "advanced" than the competition, the few lawsuits you might face are already covered. And if you're a large enough company, don't worry, no country would allow to sue you into bankrupcy, after all, you're holding the jobs in said country hostage. Without you, a few thousand people more are unemployed.

    Needn't be bankrupcy, btw. Waving the "if we gotta pay, we gotta cut costs and that means we gotta lay off" flag is often enough of a warning to get you off the hook cheaply.
  • 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 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 Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 06, 2007 @07:34AM (#20492613)
    Anything that contains lots of energy in a small and compact volume, is dangerous.

    Maybe I'm being pedantic, but E=mc^2 anybody?
  • 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 arivanov ( 12034 ) on Thursday September 06, 2007 @08:17AM (#20492905) Homepage

    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 so called laws of thermodynamics from there.

    Plenty of others.

    So in reality the chain is probably: philosophy, math, physics, chemistry and biology as the bottom feeder.

    Disclaimer - as a person who abandoned a nearly finished degree in mol biol and has a degree in Physical Chemistry and Theoretical Physics I am probably severely biased.
  • by Goaway ( 82658 ) on Thursday September 06, 2007 @08:45AM (#20493113) Homepage

    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 fundamental physics).

    So in reality the chain is probably: philosophy, math, physics, chemistry and biology as the bottom feeder.
    I'd dispute not only the maths but also the philosophy is a bit iffy. Logic leads to maths, I'll buy that, but I am not entirely sure that strict logic would derive from philosophy. I might be wrong, though.

    The chain doesn't stop there, either. Biology leads to neurology leads to psychology leads to sociology, &c &c. Of course, we are quite far from actualizing that chain as it is, so the fields are still largely independent.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Re:thats fluoride (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 06, 2007 @01:06PM (#20496417)
    Thanks for the links. And shame on the over-zealous moderator(s). Some things are just interesting. Isn't that being what a geek is all about?
  • Re:Lithium Ions (Score:3, Insightful)

    by thePowerOfGrayskull ( 905905 ) <marc.paradise@gm ... ENom minus berry> on Thursday September 06, 2007 @02:16PM (#20497299) Homepage Journal
    The only good pun is a really bad pun; so in effect, there's no such /thing/ as a good pun. For example, one of the people in this thread used a cheesy pun (watt instead of what, a pun only on the basis of spelling). That was not bad(good) - it was just cheesy. Truly bad (good) puns require at least a double-entendre, which must be valid in both meanings, without relying on any cheap shortcuts like spelling and pronunciation. However, if a /third/ meaning can be added to a bad(pun) that /is/ based on spelling/pronunciation, then it crosses the realm from bad(good) into horrible(great). And if you can cram four meanings, it is a twisted, nasty (spectacular, wonderful)sight to behold.

    Glad I could clear up the confusion there.

  • Dear moderators (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 06, 2007 @03:25PM (#20498221)
    Dear moderators.

    There IS NO -1 Unfunny.

    You can not and should not use -1 Overrated or -1 Offtopic as a substitute if you don't find something funny. The reason being that the poster does not get karma for the +1 Funny, but you will burn his karma when you mod him down.

    +4 Funny
    -2 Overrated

    Net effect:
    +2 Funny, but with a -2 karma penalty.

    If you don't find something funny, leave it alone and don't moderate it!

    If anything, every +1 Funny is a penalty in itself, as they prevent moderators from adding more +1 Insightful/Informative points once it hits the ceiling.

    And no, this post is not -1 Offtopic, as it is directly relevant to the parent. Thread drift is to be expected, and should not trigger Offtopic moderation. Thread jumps should be penalized, when they occur, but the children of a post are not -1 Offtopic if they address anything written in that post. If every post were to relate to the original article and not the post you actually reply to, there would be no need for a thread system. Since there is one, expect and accept thread drift and topic drift.
  • Re:Dear moderators (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Lehk228 ( 705449 ) on Friday September 07, 2007 @04:33AM (#20504863) Journal
    Dear Posters

    If you care so much about your precious karma don't post anything ever

    You can't control how others will moderate your posts and you could even get *gasp modded down unfairly. (oh noes)

    as a side note, if your karma balance is precarious enough that one or two points loss actually effects you stop trolling so damned much.

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