Are Your Rechargeable Batteries Safe?

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Academic labs and small private startups are incorporating elements like sulfur, zinc, magnesium or even air into the cathodes of new kinds of batteries, as well as finding new kinds of electrolytes that won’t ignite. Steven Visco, president of Berkeley-based Poly-Plus Battery, is developing lithium-air, lithium-seawater and rechargeable lithium-sulfur batteries for both the Pentagon and Detroit.

“Thermal management of the individual batteries is generally handled by the battery pack design, but there is always the possibility of a flaw in cell manufacturing,” Visco said in an e-mail to Discovery News. “However, all of these safeguards can be compromised when the drive to reduce battery cost (which is certainly important for EVs) leads to shortcuts in manufacturing.”

In order to save weight (and money), the new Dreamliner was engineered with electronic rather than hydraulic control systems. That means its lithium-ion batteries had to produce a lot more power than before, according to Venkat Subramanian, associate professor of energy, environmental and electrical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis.

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The Department of Energy recently awarded Subramanian and collaborators at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory $3.2 million to develop better monitoring systems to detect failures inside batteries before they occur.

“The better understanding we have of the internal states of the battery, the more efficiently we can use them,” Subramanian said.

Japanese and U.S. investigators are now probing the manufacturer of the Dreamliner batteries, Japan-based GS Yuasa. The same firm won a NASA contract recently to supply lithium-ion batteries to the International Space Station.

Despite all the efforts to build a better battery, its likely that both our laptops and our vehicles will continue to run on lithium-ion for the foreseeable future, according to LBL’s Srinivasan.

“We see things in the research pipeline, that will happen, but it will take a while to reach the marketplace,” he said. Srinivasan also noted that for now, there is still a tradeoff between consumer demands for more power and a desire for more safety.

“The biggest trend is more energy. I want my cellphone to last all day. The more energy you put in, the more it can do bad things.”