The Science Behind Lithium Cell Characteristics and Safety

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.

The Motorola 2600 ‘bag phone’, with a lead-acid battery. Image CC-BY-SA 3.0 source: Trent021

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.

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A New Battery For A Potted Clock Module

If you did much dismantling of PCs back in the 1980s and 1990s, you might be familiar with the Dallas Semiconductor range of potted real-time clock modules. These were chunky dual-in-line devices containing clock and non-volatile RAM chips, a crystal, and a lithium battery. The battery was good for about a decade, which was fine for most PCs of the day because the majority of desktop computers are replaced long before that deadline.

[Glitch], however has an industrial single-board computer with a 486 processor that has had a life much more prolonged than its desktop siblings due to its application. The battery in the onboard Dallas DS1387 has long ago expired, and since these devices are so long out of production to be unavailable, he’s had to improvise.

Improving on some previous documented projects he found through an internet search, he carefully ground away the potting compound to reveal a couple of the battery conductors, cut them with a PCB drill, and mounted a lithium cell holder on the top of the device with some tidily soldered Kynar wires to bring in the power. A CR1225 cell was used rather than the ubiquitous CR2032, as space was at a premium in the width of the ISA card form factor.

The potted RTC module is something of a rare device these days, but if you have a retro computer containing one this seems to be a very useful piece of work to bring it back to life. We’ve covered another similar one with a slightly larger battery in the past.