Taking Chances on Lithium-Ion Batteries

January 20th, 2017

Back in 1995, Apple introduced a new PowerBook, for which I quickly placed an order. It was the 5300ce, one of the first to feature the PowerPC processor. With a “big” 10.4-inch display, it was a potential powerhouse for its time. It was also expensive, with a loaded version retailing for close to three times what a 15-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar would cost now.

But it was also buggy and was months late to market. Apple originally attempted to use lithium-ion batteries, but evidently encountered a problem with overheating during the test process. It sure sounds familiar. So Apple stuck with nickel-hydride batteries instead, resulting in considerably shorter battery life.

That was then, this is now.

Billions of devices — and that includes over a billion from Apple alone — are equipped with lithium-ion batteries. Cars are equipped with lithium-ion batteries. Every so often, you read about an overheating or worse problem, such as a smartphone catching fire. It happens everywhere among portable gear, and it may impact about one unit among every ten million according to one estimate I heard about. It’s not high unless a company is selling tens or hundreds of millions of units for any particular model.

One published report indicated that, “Research suggests that you’re more likely to get hurt by a kitchen grease fire or a drunk driver than the battery powering your iPhone, Kindle or laptop.”

Samsung’s problem with the Galaxy Note 7, however, was that the failure rate was many times higher, indicating some sort of defect. Published reports of the testing process indicated it was also flawed, and that appears to be true, since the fixed version of the handset had the same problem. All units were recalled for a second time, and the product was soon discontinued.

Supposedly Samsung has traced it to the battery design and not another component, and further details will come — eventually — maybe when the legal problems with their next CEO are resolved. At least they have an answer, but was it a matter of a rush design to meet a deadline — to get it to market ahead of the iPhone 7 — or the fact that this is an imperfect and sometimes risky technology?

I suppose it’s encouraging to be reassured that, except for a faulty design, a lithium-ion battery is quite safe, and we can continue to use them without much risk.

But there ought to be a better way. Right now, it appears companies are hitting the wall in eking extra time from existing battery technology. It’s usually more about a larger battery, and power efficiencies with other components. Indeed, the biggest changes to Intel’s mobile processors in recent years have been more about lasting longer on a single battery charge, and less about getting faster performance. That’s a huge reason why benchmarks don’t tend to reveal significant improvements year-over-year, which discourages the need to upgrade to newer gear.

Well, unless you’re hoping for more battery life. Of course Apple confounds that hope by reducing battery capacity when gear is made smaller. A singular exception in recent years is the iPhone 7, which came with the promise of up to two hours longer battery life on the regular model, and an hour extra on the iPhone 7 Plus.

According to published reports, Apple had planned to use a more efficient battery for the Late 2016 MacBook Pro, but they couldn’t complete development in time. Thus they stuck with existing technology, with the usual claim of up to 10 hours. Make of that what you will. Some users get far less. Consumer Reports, after its peculiar battery test scenario brought forth a bug in Safari for macOS Sierra, tested the fixed version and got far longer battery life than even Apple promises.

Scientists are working on better solutions. I’ve read several reports indicating that work is continuing on potentially superior technologies. According to an article in the Financial Times from last year, one promising invention involves solid-state batteries: “This technology replaces flammable liquid electrolytes used in most traditional lithium-ion batteries, making it safer in different environments. These batteries have greater energy density, so they last longer, are more compact and weigh less. They are easier to package in medical and consumer devices and vehicles.”

This technology has already been demonstrated, but it may take a few years longer to take it from test labs and small samples to mass production for use in your your favorite tech gear and electric cars. All right, one report from the Japan Times indicated that NGK Insulators hoped to “have a battery for practical use in play by 2017.”

Unfortunately, there’s usually a wide gulf between a demonstration of a proposed technological solution and the ability to apply that solution to affordable and functional finished products that realize the technology’s potential.

While I’m not overly concerned that any of my battery-driven gear will suddenly burst into flames tomorrow, I certainly try to be careful. But I would be more comfortable dealing with a battery that doesn’t present the danger — even a slight one — of catastrophic failure. I’m also sure that Apple, Samsung, Tesla and other companies would be just delighted to release products containing batteries that are not just safe, but last a whole long longer. I can’t wait!

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One Response to “Taking Chances on Lithium-Ion Batteries”

  1. dfs says:

    I’m not sure that the impact of battery fires and explosions should be measured by numbers. Rather, such incidents are colorful and highly photogenic, so that they have a way of showing up on the 6 o’clock news and making an impression on the public imagination very disproportionate to their rarity.

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