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Power Technology

People Are Using Recycled Laptop Batteries To Power Their Homes (vice.com) 157

New submitter gooddogsgotoheaven writes: DIY Powerwall builders from around the world are harvesting old laptop batteries and turning them into powerful batteries capable of supplying energy to their entire homes. "It's the future. It's clean, simple, efficient and powerful," Jehu Garcia, one of the most popular powerwall builders, told me. He and people like him are deciding for themselves what the future of alternative energy will look like, instead of waiting for technology companies to shape it for them. "The end result is being able to rely on something I not only built myself but understand the ins and outs of to power some or all of my electricity in my home. That is inspiring," Joe Williams, another powerwall builder, told me.
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People Are Using Recycled Laptop Batteries To Power Their Homes

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  • IDTS (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Frosty Piss ( 770223 ) * on Tuesday August 22, 2017 @11:41AM (#55063875)

    Jesus. Nope, nope, nope. Dying in a fire isn't my preferred way to go.

    • Re:IDTS (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Captain Splendid ( 673276 ) <capsplendid.gmail@com> on Tuesday August 22, 2017 @11:45AM (#55063899) Homepage Journal
      Meh, you build yourself a little block shed separated from your house. Problem solved.
      • Re:IDTS (Score:5, Insightful)

        by sycodon ( 149926 ) on Tuesday August 22, 2017 @12:37PM (#55064385)

        I have had more than double the number of batteries for my laptops than I have had laptops.

        Battery lifetimes seem to be about a third of the computer.

        Where are they getting perfectly good batteries that are "recycled"?

        • by Gr8Apes ( 679165 )
          Only double? You must not be running Dell's (new battery every year, unless you're saying you only keep your laptops 2 years)
          • Indeed. From my own personal disassembly, inspection and testing of both laptop battery packs and power tool battery packs, I'd say the laptop battery packs are engineered to fail. The Ryobi Li-Ion power tool battery packs I've had show far more advanced circuitry inside of them to maintain perfect charge balance between all 5 cells used in series. I've used my Ryobi packs heavily for years and have never had any completely shutdown -- only degrade in charge run-time slowly over time.

            Laptop batteries on the

        • Re: IDTS (Score:2, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward

          They're not perfectly good. Most often, one group of cells is dead, but the others are fine. Sometimes all are fine, but so out of balance that the electronics cannot rectify it. Sometimes they are worn and don't have enough capacity for a portable application. And sometimes all cells are fine but the electronics is faulty.

        • Re:IDTS (Score:5, Informative)

          by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) <mojo&world3,net> on Tuesday August 22, 2017 @03:17PM (#55065633) Homepage Journal

          Laptop batteries are made up for several individual cells. Often only one or two cells die, and the rest are fine. Take the pack apart, test each cell and discard the duff ones.

          This happens because cheap cells have variable quality, and because heat kills batteries but tends to be very uneven in a laptop, mostly on one side where the CPU is.

          Between old laptop batteries and old power tool batteries, and even written off cars, you can get a nearly infinite supply of very cheap/free LiPo cells that just need disassembling and testing.

          • I don't know. Disassembling a Li-Ion battery pack is a little like disarming a bomb. Get some thick plexiglass to protect yourself :-)

            For stationary use, you can't go wrong with NiFe batteries. You just need lots of space, and maybe your own forklift...

      • by gweihir ( 88907 )

        If these people were doing that, fine. They are not. They put these battery packs right in their homes.
        They are amateurs with no idea of risk management or statistics and often only passing EE skills.

        • If these people were doing that, fine. They are not. They put these battery packs right in their homes. They are amateurs with no idea of risk management or statistics and often only passing EE skills.

          And yet from TFA:

          Most hobbyists I spoke to said they don't keep their powerwalls inside their homes for safety reasons or to comply with local regulations.

          • by gweihir ( 88907 )

            Most hobbyists I spoke to said they don't keep their powerwalls inside their homes for safety reasons or to comply with local regulations.

            And then you look at the pictures in the article...

      • Meh, you build yourself a little block shed separated from your house.

        Yeah, that's what the Nuclear Boy Scout did.

        Maybe we should encourage more folks to skip those dangerous batteries, and go straight for their own private nukes . . . ?

    • by Anonymous Coward

      I could say the same about car tinkerers. Gasoline is flammable as fuck.
      And I find that the average intelligence among those who like to tinker with electricity is higher than that among those who like to tinker with cars.

    • Re:IDTS (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Athanasius ( 306480 ) <slashdot@NOsPaM.miggy.org> on Tuesday August 22, 2017 @12:43PM (#55064435) Homepage

      That was also my first thought, before I read TFA. Searching on 'safe' in it I find these quotes, and it's not all the hits:

      Gathering enough batteries is only the first step to building a DIY powerwall. Every cell then has to be tested—not all are safe enough to be used, several hobbyists told me. Lithium-ion batteries have a limited lifespan: Some laptop batteries harvested end up having too little capacity to be used.

      Most hobbyists I spoke to said they don't keep their powerwalls inside their homes for safety reasons or to comply with local regulations.

      One of the most frequent topics that came up in my conversations with powerwall makers was safety. Fusing together hundreds of recycled lithium-ion batteries is dangerous, and could cause a fire if done incorrectly.

      On the DIYpowerwalls forum, there are dozens of threads dedicated to preventing these massive, homemade electronic devices from catching ablaze. YouTube too is littered with videos warning powerwall builders that their projects are unsafe.

      DIY powerwall makers often aren't engineers or electricians. Most, including the most popular—like Jehu Garcia—lack formal training altogether. But they remain mostly unfazed by safety concerns, and said that more recently, makers have pushed each other to engineer more safeguards into their rigs.

      So, there is definitely some caution here, and awareness that such pre-used batteries may not be useful enough due to low charge levels.

    • Yay, home fireworks! :) https://www.youtube.com/result... [youtube.com]
  • by keith_nt4 ( 612247 ) on Tuesday August 22, 2017 @11:45AM (#55063905) Homepage Journal
    But this seems to be a really, really bad idea. Just on the face of it.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      If you did know about electricity, you would know (or know how to learn) which parts of the idea are bad and how to avoid or minimize the dangers.

      • by keith_nt4 ( 612247 ) on Tuesday August 22, 2017 @01:16PM (#55064701) Homepage Journal

        Good thing I have slashdot commenters to know this stuff for me. So ya. What guy this said...

        by burtosis ( 1124179 )
        The problem with using laptop batteries is not the batteries, the tesla uses them. The problem is the smart battery circuitry needed to monitor currents and voltages, balance cells, thermally monitor strings (or ideally individual cells), gas gauge, and safely disconnect problem cells from the system. The major advancement in the tesla is the amazing cooling/heating system and the ability to rewire itself to stop using problem cells. Simply wiring up a bank of unmonitored cells is a disaster waiting to happen. The vast majority of home hobbiests lack the knowledge and wherewithal to implement proper battery safety. The packs in the stock photos, if lithium cells, are a disaster in the making. Disclaimer: have designed smart battery circuits for lithium batteries used in actual products.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Nothing wrong technically if you know what you are doing, but I question the value return on all the effort and cost including the lifetime and maintenance requirements considering you are starting with used batteries many of which are already in the late aging phase. It seems to lean more toward enthusiast and hobby value than it does practical value. And that's OK.
      • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

        You would be surprised how many good cells get thrown away. Often one cell in a pack dies and the whole pack is discarded, despite the rest of the cells having plenty of life left in them.

        Written off cars are another source of well maintained, barely used cells - a Nissan Leaf 24kWh pack will easily do 200k miles with 20% capacity loss even with constant rapid charging and 100% top-offs, so one with 40k miles that gets written off is going to have a lot of cells with a lot of life left in them.

        • Its not the good cells that are the problem. Out of thousands that people have scavenged from all over, you can bet their will be many that won't last long.
    • But this seems to be a really, really bad idea. Just on the face of it.

      My friend cut himself sharpening his knife the other day. On the face of it, pretty much everything seems like a bad idea if you have no idea what you're doing.

  • Just asking...

  • by Andrew Lindh ( 137790 ) on Tuesday August 22, 2017 @11:49AM (#55063923)

    I think there's a huge stash of "almost new" Samsung Galaxy Note 7 batteries that aren't being used now.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Dear Sir/Madam, I am writing to inform you of a fire that has broken out on the premises of 123 Cavendon Road... no, that's too formal.

    [deletes text, starts again]

    Fire - exclamation mark - fire - exclamation mark - help me - exclamation mark. 123 Cavendon Road. Looking forward to hearing from you. Yours truly, Maurice Moss.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I run my flash lights, USB battery packs, and e-cigarette with 18650 cells salvaged from old laptop batteries. And working in IT gives me an unlimited supply of them.

    Of course, like fryer oil, they won't be free once enough people find a use for them.

  • by stikves ( 127823 ) on Tuesday August 22, 2017 @11:58AM (#55063991) Homepage

    They are very power efficient, and also very dangerous:

    - Overcharge it too much: boom
    - Drain it completely, and then try to charge: boom
    - Puncture: boom
    - Overheat: boom
    - Make your own battery with cells you found around, and not use a good controller: boom, boom, boom

    Of course it is possible to use lots of cheap batteries, with a very good controller system. This is what Tesla does for its current cars. However the system needs to monitor each cell and pack, and have safety precautions to disconnect them if them become faulty.

    Basically, do not try this at home.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Basically, do not try this at home.

      So, I can still power my home with it, right?

      • Basically, do not try this at home.

        So, I can still power my home with it, right?

        Yes you could but it's like giving a 4yr old the controls to a 20 ton front end loader in your backyard. I'd rather a trained professional operate something capable of demolishing my home in minutes but to each their own.

    • - Overcharge - Good charging apparatus.
      - Drain it completely - Good charging apparatus and battery management, as noted in the article.
      - Puncture - Stop puncturing your powerwall cells, please, just as you don't twist off the natural gas connectors to see want's inside. Darwinian problem.
      - Overheat - battery management, and a thermostat
      - Make your own battery with cells you found around, and not use a good controller - yeah, doing it right is pretty much a Darwinian problem.

    • - Drain it completely, and then try to charge: boom

      Great, now that Slashdot knows this, "Da Terrorists" knows it as well.

      And the USA government will know it, and WILL ban laptops on flights.

    • by Rick Schumann ( 4662797 ) on Tuesday August 22, 2017 @12:40PM (#55064405) Journal
      You've got it pretty much covered; Li+ cells are finicky at best, you do anything to make them upset and they get very violent with you very quickly.

      The main problem with using used cells from old laptop batteries is that they're not all the same age and therefore you have no way of judging what their true capacity or overall health is. If you were linking up the actual packs they're in, and using the built-on microcontroller-based charge-discharge controller to manage each pack, then it would be reasonably safe, but dismantling them from random packs and assembling them into huge banks? You're asking for disaster to happen. The best you could do there would be to have a very sophisticated management controller(s) monitoring smaller banks of cells, disconnecting them at the first sign of failure of any single cell in that bank -- and also a automated fire-supression system that can handle a catastrophic failure, and perhaps an explosion-proof enclosure for all the banks of cells. Li+ cells may be ubiquitos at this point in time, but they're still far from Amateur Night to work with, especially in the huge quantities these guys (who, according to the article) are indeed complete amateurs. From what I know of it (and I worked somewhere where I did quite a bit of research into the subject of building Li+ battery packs), if they were buying new cells in those quantities, the manufacturer might insist on seeing their controller design(s) before accepting the purchase.
    • Of course it is possible to use lots of cheap batteries, with a very good controller system. This is what Tesla does for its current cars. However the system needs to monitor each cell and pack, and have safety precautions to disconnect them if them become faulty.

      Yet they still catch fire and the same batteries used in vehicles are being used in power walls installed in homes.

      - Overcharge it too much: boom
      - Drain it completely, and then try to charge: boom
      - Puncture: boom
      - Overheat: boom
      - Make your own battery with cells you found around, and not use a good controller: boom, boom, boom

      Do all of these with lithium iron phosphate and worse case your battery turns into a paper weight.

      The problem in my view isn't cheap batteries and controllers as much as the industries love affair with inherently dangerous chemistries and hoping for the best.

    • by idji ( 984038 )
      now go and watch Jehu on youtube and see that he knows all of this very well.
    • by bongey ( 974911 )
      Well this could happen with ANY LI+ battery system, even the Tesla powerwall. Lithium batteries always have a fire risk compared to other battery types.
    • by Synon ( 847155 )
      Cows kill 22 people a year, they must be dangerous too right? I've built several battery packs using old laptop cells, so long as you monitor them (which literally everyone who uses these does) you will not have a problem. I've done destructive testing using all the tests you list, the result has always been less than spectacular. I expected hammering a screwdriver through a cell would give me a show, but they do little more than a little hiss and get warm to the touch. RC lithium pouches can be very explo
  • by burtosis ( 1124179 ) on Tuesday August 22, 2017 @12:01PM (#55064029)
    The problem with using laptop batteries is not the batteries, the tesla uses them. The problem is the smart battery circuitry needed to monitor currents and voltages, balance cells, thermally monitor strings (or ideally individual cells), gas gauge, and safely disconnect problem cells from the system. The major advancement in the tesla is the amazing cooling/heating system and the ability to rewire itself to stop using problem cells. Simply wiring up a bank of unmonitored cells is a disaster waiting to happen. The vast majority of home hobbiests lack the knowledge and wherewithal to implement proper battery safety. The packs in the stock photos, if lithium cells, are a disaster in the making. Disclaimer: have designed smart battery circuits for lithium batteries used in actual products.
    • IIRC every parallel element in a Li pack should be monitored and individually controlled, correct?

      so I can have 100 cells in 10 strings of 10 and would need 10 controllers* to monitor said pack.

      Then the parallel pack itself can be treated somewhat simply as a larger battery equivalent (e.g. if each of the hypothetical strings is 1Ah then I can treat the pack as a single 10Ah battery). The danger comes into play when cells are in parallel without protection, as then the stronger cell can actually damage the

      • IIRC every parallel element in a Li pack should be monitored and individually controlled, correct?

        so I can have 100 cells in 10 strings of 10 and would need 10 controllers* to monitor said pack.

        Then the parallel pack itself can be treated somewhat simply as a larger battery equivalent (e.g. if each of the hypothetical strings is 1Ah then I can treat the pack as a single 10Ah battery). The danger comes into play when cells are in parallel without protection, as then the stronger cell can actually damage the weaker cell in boundary conditions, leading to over depletion and over charging situations.

        *in this case controller is specifically: LV cutoff to prevent over depletion of string Charge current limiting HV cutoff possibly max current drain too.

        Close but no. As another poster pointed out a single failure in that parallel pack, if shorted causes a cascade like failure of every cell in parallel discharging at unsafe levels and likely results in a fire. If a cell goes high resistance or open the others have to work harder (supply more current per cell) to keep the same load and can be thermally stressed and fail by temperature overload - you need balanced cells with internal resistance and capacity to be nearly equal as imbalance likely from used r

    • The problem is the smart battery circuitry needed to monitor currents and voltages, balance cells, thermally monitor strings (or ideally individual cells), gas gauge, and safely disconnect problem cells from the system.

      Fortunately Tesla says you can use their battery management system patents royalty free. I haven't read them, so I don't know if they're typical useless patent dreck or not, but at least in theory, there's detailed documentation on the industry-leading many-cell pack and its safety systems, which so far have proven to be fairly impressive. Even if it's only the typical hand-wavy description, it should at least provide a hint about how to handle all of those things you mentioned.

    • by Cramer ( 69040 )

      Tesla modules cannot "rewire themselves". Individual cells are connected in parallel via low current fuse wires. The hope is the fuse will open if there's ever anything wonky in any individual cell. There are a few thermistors in the pack going to the mini-BMS board in the module; that board is *part* of the BMS, not a free running BMS in itself.

      Hobbyists should follow this design. However, we've all seen the idiots welding dozens of batteries together with strips that could carry hundreds of amp before fai

  • by LeftCoastThinker ( 4697521 ) on Tuesday August 22, 2017 @12:03PM (#55064047)

    Unless these people built a cinderblock bunker roofed with a galvanized steel roof (i.e. no wood in the structure at all) and a steel fire rated door that is completely removed from their main residence, the first time one of these Lithium batteries fails thermally, their entire "wall" will likely go up and burn down their house. If they have each battery in a ceramic, isolated cubby outside their house, they are marginally better, but this is definitely not a good way to go about powering your house or living off grid... You are better off building your own lead acid battery array with deep cycle batteries...

    • I was going to say aren't the deep cycle batteries used more often for this? of course you get over 100Ah and they start getting expensive.

      • Yes, that is the standard approach, and for good reason. There is no reason you can't build your own battery bank though. (Very few people have the technical skill to build a battery charge/discharge balancer though.)

    • My ex-wife's dad used to have a whole house UPS built from a rectifier, inverter, charge controller and a bunch of deep cycle batteries.

      LK

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Most power my home with DIY batteries folks use the Nickel-Iron Battery [wikipedia.org].

    It's not the most efficient battery, but it tolerates abuse (aka DIY stupidity) and usually doesn't explode unless you do something really dumb.

    Trying this DIY approach with Lithium batteries?
    Let's not and say we did.

    • by fnj ( 64210 )

      Careful. NiFe blows off hydrogen when charged. Hydrogen will explode from a tiny spark.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Your powerwall might turn into a firewall

  • ...eventually. Either the NIMBY people will get all concerned that "Something might go wrong!" "What if it catches on fire?!" "There's no way that can be environmental or legal!"

    OR

    The energy companies will lobby to REQUIRE that federal law prohibits re-using the cells from internally sealed battery packs as "They just aren't safe!". They'll cite public battery fires and MSDS listing the "Volatile internal chemicals!" in the batteries that are safely contained UNLESS OPENED.

    These power walls are f
  • WTF!?! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Shotgun ( 30919 ) on Tuesday August 22, 2017 @12:30PM (#55064299)

    Where are they getting these used laptop batteries that still have life in them?

    My experience has been that a typical laptop battery will last about 2 years. 3 if you're will to work in small spurts before hunting down a power outlet. Most are run till the batteries are useless, and then spend a while as a makeshift desktop by constantly being connected to the charger. In a couple cases, the laptop was still useful enough to spring for a replacement battery.

    I just don't see where enough recycle-able batteries will come from for this "movement" to ever be anything other than an oddity. With the tedium of:
    - connecting hundreds of cells that you've already determined are not new, if not at the end of their usable life
    -purchasing or building your own controllers with failsafe features
    -replacing cells as they begin dying off

    I would think it would make most people opt for buying one of Tesla's products.

    • by skids ( 119237 )

      My bet would be that most packs fail in one bad cell, leaving several good cells remaining.

      My real question is, where are you getting laptop batteries with cylindrical cells? I thought they were all pouch over the last decade or so due to the thin craze.

    • From what I understand the batteries that power electronics aren't dead per-se, but just outside the spec necessary to power the original device as intended. If you understand the characteristics of the battery I would expect you could still build around that to get something useful.
    • by DrXym ( 126579 )
      Battery storage didn't start with Tesla and I'm sure other solutions in a similar form factor will appear from other major manufacturers. Building banks of batteries into safe, reliable storage is obviously something that can be highly automated and the cost is only going to come over time.

      But I don't see why anyone would want to do this for themselves. What they save in money they must surely lose in time and house / injury claims if their house goes up in smoke.

    • one bad cell in the pack can render the entire pack useless.
      TFA says they test each cell through a discharge/charge cycle, my guess being that they cull the horrible ones, and bin sort the rest.

    • by Ramze ( 640788 )

      Depends on the battery configuration, but usually they have multiple batteries set in a parallel configuration. If a battery cell on the first rail completely dies, you can still get the proper voltage from the second rail, but you now have half the battery life. Some people will change out the battery at that point, others will wait until a battery on the 2nd rail fails and battery power goes to zero or insanely short like 3 mins of charge. There might be 6 good batteries and 2 bad batteries in the pac

    • Where are they getting these used laptop batteries that still have life in them?

      They aren't. They are getting used laptop battery cells that still have life in them. Most laptop batteries will typically be dead when only one cell has crapped itself.
      Charge and discharge test each individual cell and dispose of the faulty one.

    • by bongey ( 974911 )
      With laptop batteries only one cell has to go bad for it not to work with a laptop, the rest of the cells are usually still good.
  • bad mod
  • In a few years, all the thermal issue with lithium batteries are going to be a thing of the past. If not for improved safety then you should at wait because the new batteries are going to cause the price of the preset battery forms to plummet. Before installing this shit, do check with your insurance company to see if they will cover you if a battery fire does burn down your house because when one battery goes, they ALL go.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    If one of the laptop battery is on recall list that's one ticking fuse in your powerwall

  • i would switch to 12 volt DC and use automotive electronics, like a car stereo for entertainment, lights meant for a camper motor home, just use coleman multi-fuel stove, no refrigerator, just keep my food storage as canned goods and dry goods
  • by superdave80 ( 1226592 ) on Tuesday August 22, 2017 @02:35PM (#55065313)
    FTFA:

    The giant battery system will be able to store 1 megawatt of power—1000 kWh

    I... don't even know what to do with that sentence. Watts are not equivalent to kilowatt-hours.

  • Sounds good. Those things never explode, right?

    • by Mondor ( 704672 )

      Of course not! These batteries were harvested by loving hands and made of perfectly natural organic lithium. This is the gentle touch of Mother Nature's power.

  • The battery in my laptop lasts only a few years before it's basically a brick. And they are using used batteries to build this thing?

    • by bongey ( 974911 )
      No usually only one cell is bad in you laptop battery, the rest of the cells are fine.
  • by sims 2 ( 994794 )

    I've got probably a 5 gallon buckets worth of bad laptop batteries i've yet to come up with a good use for them.

    • by Synon ( 847155 )
      Tons of uses. I built a battery pack for my ebike with some old laptop cells. 50+ mile range at tops out at 34mph, makes a great commuter, been putting on 300 miles every month and the cells have stayed in perfect balance.
  • I have a better idea. Let's get a hundred hamsters, and put them into a hundred wheels. Or maybe rats, as they are stronger. We can harvest rats in large cities and feed them with refuse. Wheels will provide with electricity whole houses, maybe even hospitals and schools! And it's clean, simple, efficient and powerful! It's natural, organic synergy! Where should I apply for a patent? Although I recall this idea was already featured in one of the Gummi Bears episodes, but this time it's for real!

  • Looks like it'll take more than $3000 worth of work - time and materials - to make this a reasonable endeavor.

    However, more power to those that indulge! (pun intended!).
  • ... and turning them into powerful batteries capable of supplying energy to their entire homes.

    Pleas stop saying "supplying energy". Gas and coal are something that "supplies energy". Batteries store and release energy. (unless you're burning them and turning that heat into energy I suppose)

    You still have to charge them, storage isn't anything very incredible here. And old batteries can be pretty wasteful at that too. The manufacturers don't make the packs easy to take apart and separate the cells, and

  • i couldnt put a windmill in the yard because its "a hazard" ... using solar panels without passing it through the grid ( read 21% tax plus use and transfer costs and what not) is illegal and producing enough to store makes you technically "a provider" so thats also illegal unless you get a license which costs SO much you couldnt possibly produce enough from one home to make that viable
    and people always lol like you exaggerate and me like "well come live here then"

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