Lessons In Li-Ion Safety

If you came here from an internet search because your battery just blew up and you don’t know how to put out the fire, then use a regular fire extinguisher if it’s plugged in to an outlet, or a fire extinguisher or water if it is not plugged in. Get out if there is a lot of smoke. For everyone else, keep reading.

I recently developed a product that used three 18650 cells. This battery pack had its own overvoltage, undervoltage, and overcurrent protection circuitry. On top of that my design incorporated a PTC fuse, and on top of that I had a current sensing circuit monitored by the microcontroller that controlled the board. When it comes to Li-Ion batteries, you don’t want to mess around. They pack a lot of energy, and if something goes wrong, they can experience thermal runaway, which is another word for blowing up and spreading fire and toxic gasses all over. So how do you take care of them, and what do you do when things go poorly?

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Better Battery Management Through Chemistry

The lead-acid rechargeable battery is a not-quite-modern marvel. Super reliable and easy to use, charging it is just a matter of applying a fixed voltage to it and waiting a while; eventually the battery is charged and stays topped off, and that’s it. Their ease is countered by their size, weight, energy density, and toxic materials.

The lithium battery is the new hotness, but their high energy density means a pretty small package that can get very angry and dangerous when mishandled. Academics have been searching for safer batteries, better charge management systems, and longer lasting battery formulations that can be recharged thousands of times, and a recent publication is generating a lot of excitement about it.

Consider the requirements for a battery cell in an electric car:

  • High energy density (Lots of power stored in a small size)
  • Quick charge ability
  • High discharge ability
  • MANY recharge cycles
  • Low self-discharge
  • Safe

Lithium ion batteries are the best option we have right now, but there are a variety of Li-ion chemistries, and depending on the expected use and balancing and charging, different chemistries can be optimized for different performance characteristics. There’s no perfect battery yet, and conflicting requirements mean that the battery market will likely always have some options.

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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.