Engage Tinfoil Hat: Samsung Note 7 Battery Theory

For the most part I believe things are as they seem. But every once in a while I begin to look at notable technology happenings from a different angle. What if things are not like they seem? This is conspiracy theory territory, and I want to be very clear about this: what follows is completely fictitious and not based on fact. At least, I haven’t tried to base it on facts surrounding the current events. But perhaps you can. What if there’s more to the battery fires in Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 phones?

I have a plausible theory, won’t you don your tinfoil hat and follow me down this rabbit hole?

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Tour de Force Battery Hacking

Lithium-Ion batteries are finicky little beasts. They can’t be overcharged, overdischarged, overheated, or even looked at funny without bursting into flames. Inside any laptop battery pack, a battery charge controller keeps watch over all the little cells, and prevents them from getting damaged.

Of course, any “smart” device will sometimes make the wrong choices, and then it’s up to us to dig inside its brains and fix it. When [Viktor] got a perfectly good battery pack with a controller that refused to charge the batteries, he started off on what would become an epic journey into battery controllers, and the result is not just a fixed battery, but a controller-reprogramming tool, software, and three reversed controller chips so far.

devbBattery controller chips speak SMBus, and [Viktor] started out by building a USB-SMBus tool. It’s a clever use of a cheap eBay development board for a Cypress CY7C68013A USB microcontroller. Flashed with [Viktor]’s firmware and running his software on the host computer, a SMBus scan is child’s play.

The rest of the story is good old-fashioned hacking: looking for datasheets, reading industry powerpoints, taking wild guesses, googling for passwords, and toggling the no-connect pins while booting the controllers up. We’re not going to argue with results: the bq8030, R2J240, and M37512 controllers have all given up their secrets, and tools to program them have been integrated into [Viktor]’s SMBusb tool.

In short, this is one of the nicest hard-core hacks we’ve seen in a while. Kudos [Viktor]! And thanks for the SMBus tool.

Ugly DIY Portable Soldering Iron

If you’ve ever wanted a battery-operated soldering iron and you just can’t stand the thought of buying one, you might check out the video below from [Just5mins]. In it, he takes a candy tube, some scrap materials, a lithium ion battery, a nichrome wire, a USB charger, and a switch and turns it into an apparently practical soldering iron.

Paradoxically, [Just5mins] used a soldering iron to build this one, so it probably can’t be your only soldering iron, although we suppose you could figure something out in a pinch. Maybe in rep-rap style, make a poor quality one with no soldering and use it to solder up the next one.

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Semisolid Lithium Ion Batteries Promise Better Cars, Solar

Lithium-ion batteries make possible smaller and lighter electronics. Unfortunately, they are also costly to produce. In a conventional lithium-ion battery, many thin layers create the finished product much like filo dough in baklava. A startup company called 24M thinks they have the answer to making less expensive lithium-ion batteries: a semisolid electrode made by mixing powders and liquid to form an electrolyte goo.

Not only will the batteries be cheaper and faster to create, but the cost of the factory will be less. Currently, 24M has a pilot manufacturing line, but by 2020 they expect to scale to produce batteries that cost less than $100 per kilowatt hour (today’s costs are about $200 to $250 for conventional batteries). Under $100, the batteries become competitive with the cost of internal combustion engines, according to the article.

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Safely Creating A Li-Ion Pack From Phone Cells

[Glen], at Maker Space Newcastle Upon Tyne, is refreshingly honest. As he puts it, he’s too cheap to buy a proper battery.

He needed a 1AH battery pack to power his quadcopter controller and FPV headset, and since inadequate discharge warnings had led him to damage lithium polymer cells with these devices, he wanted his pack to use lithium-ion cells. His requirements were that the cells be as cheap, lightweight, and small as possible, so to satisfy them he turned to a stack of mobile phone cells. Nokia BL-4U cells could be had for under a pound ($1.46) including delivery, so they certainly satisfied his requirement for cheapness.

It might seem a simple procedure, to put together a battery pack, and in terms of physical wiring it certainly is. But lithium-ion cells are not simply connected together in the way dry cells are, to avoid a significant fire risk they need to have the voltage of each individual cell monitored with a special balanced charger. Thus each cell junction needs to be brought out to another connector to the charger.

[Glen]’s write-up takes the reader through all the requirements of safe lithium-ion pack construction and charging, and is a useful read for any lithium-ion newbies. If nothing else it serves as a useful reminder that mobile phone cells can be surprisingly cheap.

Lithium cells have captured our attention before here at Hackaday. Our recent Hackaday Dictionary piece provides a comprehensive primer, we’ve featured another multi-cell build, and an interesting app note from Maxim for a battery manager chip.

Nanotech Makes Safer Lithium Batteries

Lithium-ion batteries typically contain two electrodes and an electrolyte. Shorting or overcharging the battery makes it generate heat. If the temperature reaches about 300 degrees Fahrenheit (150 degrees Celsius), the electrolyte can catch fire and explode.

spikesThere have been several attempts to make safer lithium-ion cells, but often these safety measures render them unusable after overheating. Stanford University researchers have a new method to protect from overheating cells that uses–what else–nanotechnology graphene. The trick is a thin film of polyethylene that contains tiny nickel spikes coated with graphene (see electron micrograph to the right).

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Prototype Sodium Ion Batteries in 18650 Cells

French researchers have announced a prototype of an 18650 sodium-ion battery. If you’ve bought a powerful LED flashlight, a rechargeable battery pack, or a–ahem–stronger than usual LASER pointer, you’ve probably run into 18650 batteries. You often find these inside laptop batteries and –famously– the Tesla electric vehicle runs on a few thousand of these cells. The number might seem like a strange choice, but it maps to the cell size (18 mm in diameter and 65 mm long).

The batteries usually use lithium-ion technology. However, lithium isn’t the only possible choice for rechargeable cells. Lithium has a lot of advantages. It has a high working voltage, and it is lightweight. It does, however, have one major disadvantage: it is a relatively rare element. It is possible to make sodium-ion batteries, although there are some design tradeoffs. But sodium is much more abundant than lithium, which makes up about 0.06% of the Earth’s crust compared to sodium’s 2.6%). Better still, sea water is full of sodium chloride (which we call salt) that you can use to create sodium.

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