Lithium ion batteries have been a revolutionary technology. Their high energy and power density has made the electric car a practical reality, enabled grid storage for renewable energy, and put powerful computers in the palm of the hand. However, if there’s one thing humanity is known for, it’s always wanting more.
Potential contenders for the title of ultimate battery technology are out there, but it will take a major shift to dethrone lithium-ion from the top of the tree.
To describe the constraints on developing consumer battery technology as ‘challenging’ is an enormous understatement. The ideal rechargeable battery has conflicting properties – it has to store large amounts of energy, safely release or absorb large amounts of it on demand, and must be unable to release that energy upon failure. It also has to be cheap, nontoxic, lightweight, and scalable.
As a result, consumer battery technologies represent a compromise between competing goals. Modern rechargeable lithium batteries are no exception, although overall they are a marvel of engineering. Mobile technology would not be anywhere near as good as it is today without them. We’re not saying you cannot have cellphones based on lead-acid batteries (in fact the Motorola 2600 ‘Bag Phone’ was one), but you had better have large pockets. Also a stout belt or… some type of harness? It turns out lead is heavy.
Rechargeable lithium cells have evolved tremendously over the years since their commercial release in 1991. Early on in their development, small grains plated with lithium metal were used, which had several disadvantages including loss of cell capacity over time, internal short circuits, and fairly high levels of heat generation. To solve these problems, there were two main approaches: the use of polymer electrolytes, and the use of graphite electrodes to contain the lithium ions rather than use lithium metal. From these two approaches, lithium-ion (Li-ion) and lithium-polymer (Li-Po) cells were developed (Vincent, 2009, p. 163). Since then, many different chemistries have been developed.
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.
[robin] has a Red Camera (lucky!), an absurdly expensive digital video camera. As you would expect the batteries are also absurdly expensive. What’s the solution? Battery packs from cordless drills.
Cordless drills are interesting pieces of tech that can be easily repurposed; there are huge battery packs in them, big, beefy motors, and enough hardware to build an Automatic Cat Feeder or a motorized bicycle.
What if those old Makita batteries don’t charge? That usually means only one or two cells are dead, not the whole pack. Free LiIon cells, but you need to charge them. Here’s a single cell charger/boost converter that will do the trick.
A problem faced by amateur radio operators around the world is the lack of commercial power. Plugging a portable shack into a wall will work, but for uninterrupted power car batteries are everywhere. How do you combine wall power and car batteries for the best of both worlds? With an In-line battery backup module.
All of the projects above rely on charging a battery through wall power, and sometimes even that is impossible. Solar is where we’re headed, with solar LiPo chargers, and solar LiFe chargers. That’s more than enough to keep a smartphone charged, but if you want to go completely off the grid, you’re going to need something bigger.
[Michel] has been off the power grid 80% of the time since he installed his home PV system a few years ago. How’s he doing it? A literal ton of batteries, huge chargers, and a 5kW inverter.
So, you’ve got your awesome project built and are ready to take it on the go, but how are you going to power it? You could use a couple alkaline cells or perhaps swipe a Litihium battery pack from some infrequently used portable device – however before you do that, why not check out what [Lady Ada] has to say on the subject?
The detailed tutorial on her site discusses the different types of Lithium-based batteries and their form factors, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of each type. Voltage ratings are covered, as well as why it is important to choose a Lithium battery pack that fits the task at hand. The dangers of improperly handling batteries are clearly noted, highlighting the importance of selecting a proper charger and resisting the urge to ever wire Lithium batteries together to increase capacity.
While the bulk of the information presented is nothing new to most of our readers, it’s definitely a worthwhile read for those just starting to use Lithium battery technology in their projects.
Every so often I have to slap myself in the head. I’m surprised that we haven’t covered these things by now. DeWalt’s been selling a LiIon 36 volt battery pack that’s full of the latest A123 cells. These are the same ones that were used in the Killacycle. (I think they’ve got a new batch of cells now).
A while back, [Jeff] sent in a circuit for using multiple packs, leaving the internal BMS in place. [The link is fixed now]
[Robert] sent in a scooter that’s been designed to run these same cells. The custom fabrication and machine work looks fantastic.