Non-Newtonian Batteries

Batteries placed in harm’s way need to be protected. A battery placed where a breakdown could endanger a life needs to be protected. Lithium-ion batteries on the bottoms of electric cars are subject to accidental damage and they are bathed in flame-retardant epoxy inside a metal sled. Phone batteries are hidden behind something that will shatter or snap before the battery suffers and warrant inspection. Hoverboard batteries are placed behind cheap plastic, and we have all seen how well that works. Batteries contain chemicals with a high density of energy, so the less exploding they do, the better.

Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have added a new ingredient to batteries that makes them armored but from the inside. The ingredient is silica spheres so fine it is safe to call it powder. The effect of this dust is that the electrolyte in every battery will harden like cornstarch/water then go right back to being a liquid. This non-Newtonian fluid works on the principal principle of shear-thickening which, in this case, says that the suspension will become harder as shear force is applied. So, batteries get rock hard when struck, then go back to being batteries when it is safe.

Non-Newtonian fluids are much fun, but we’re also happy to see them put to use. The same principle works in special speed bumps to allow safe drivers to continue driving but jolts speeders. Micromachines can swim in non-Newtonian fluids better than water in some cases.

Electric Bike From The Ground Up

Electric vehicles are getting more traction these days, but this trend is rolling towards us in more ways than just passenger vehicles. More and more bikes are being electrified too, since the cost of batteries has come down and people realize that they can get around town easily without having to pay the exorbitant price to own, fuel, and maintain a car. Of course there are turnkey ebikes, but those don’t interest us much around here. This ebike from [Andy] is a master class in how to build your own ebike.

Due to some health issues, [Andy] needed a little bit of assistance from an electric motor on his bike, but found out that the one he wanted wouldn’t fit his current bike quite right. He bought a frame from eBay with the right dimensions and assembled the bike from scratch. Not only that, but when it was time to put the battery together he sourced individual 18650 cells and built a custom battery for the bike. His build goes into great detail on how to do all of these things, so even if you need a lithium battery for another project this build might be worth a read.

If you’ve never been on an electric bike before, they’re a lot of fun to ride. They’re also extremely economical, and a good project too if you’re looking for an excuse to go buy a kit and get to work. You can get creative with the drivetrain too if you’d like to do something out of the box, such as this bike that was powered by AA batteries and a supercapacitor.

Getting the Lead Out of Lithium Battery Recycling

When that fateful morning comes that your car no longer roars to life with a quick twist of the key, but rather groans its displeasure at the sad state of your ride’s electrical system, your course is clear: you need a new battery. Whether you do it yourself or – perish the thought – farm out the job to someone else, the end result is the same. You get a spanking new lead-acid battery, and the old one is whisked away to be ground up and turned into a new battery in a nearly perfect closed loop system.

Contrast this to what happens to the battery in your laptop when it finally gives up the ghost. Some of us will pop the pack open, find the likely one bad cell, and either fix the pack or repurpose the good cells. But most dead lithium-based battery packs are dropped in the regular trash, or placed in blue recycling bins with the best of intentions but generally end up in the landfill anyway.

Why the difference between lead and lithium batteries? What about these two seemingly similar technologies dictates why one battery can have 98% of its material recycled, while the other is cheaper to just toss? And what are the implications down the road, when battery packs from electric vehicles start to enter the waste stream in bulk?

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Hybrid Bench Power Supply Can Also Hit the Road

Everyone needs a bench power supply, and rolling your own has almost become a rite of passage for hackers. For a long time, the platform of choice for such builds seemed to be the ATX power supply from a computer. While we certainly still see those builds, a lot of the action has switched to those cheap eBay programmable DC-DC converters, with their particolored digital displays.

This hybrid bench and portable power supply is a good example of what can be accomplished with these modules, and looks like it might turn out to be a handy tool. [Luke] centered his build around the DPS3003, a constant current and constant voltage buck converter that can take up to 40-VDC input and outputs up to 32 volts at 3 amps. In bench mode, the programmable module is fed from a mains-powered 24-volt switching supply. For portable work, an 18-volt battery from a Makita drill slips into a 3D-printed adapter on the top of the case. The printed part contains a commercial terminal [Luke] scored on eBay, but we’d bet the entire thing could be 3D printed. And no problem if you change power tool brands — just print another adapter.

Those little eBay power supply modules have proven to be an enabling technology, at least judging by the number of clever ways we’ve seen them used lately. From this combination bench PSU and soldering iron supply to a portable PSU perched atop a battery, these things are everywhere. Heck, you can even reflash the firmware and make them do your bidding.

[via Dangerous Prototypes]

Monstrous USB Power Bank

At some point, cleaning out the spare parts bin — or cabinet, or garage — becomes a necessity. This is dangerous because it can induce many more project ideas and completely negate the original purpose. [Chaotic Mind], considering the pile of  batteries he’s collected over the past decade, decided that instead of throwing them out, he would recycle them into a grotesque USB power bank.

Inside the bulk of this power bank are an eye-popping 64 18650 Lithium Ion cells, mostly collected from laptop batteries, and wired in a parallel 8×8 pattern with an estimated capacity of over 100,000mAh(!!).  The gatekeeper to all this stored energy is a two-USB power bank charger board from Tindie.

Ah — but how to package all this power? The handy man’s secret weapon: duct-tape!

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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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MagSafe Power Bank from Scrap

Just a few short years ago, it was possible to find scrapped lithium batteries for free, or at least for very cheap. What most people at the time didn’t realize is that a battery with multiple cells might go bad because only one cell is bad, leaving the others ready for salvaging. Now it’s not a secret anymore, but if you can manage to get your hands on some there’s a lot of options for use. [ijsf] took a step further with this hack, taking a few cells from a Panasonic battery and wrangling them into a MagSafe-capable power bank for a Mac.

The real hack wasn’t scavenging batteries, however, it was getting the MagSafe to signal the computer to use power from the battery bank to run the computer only, and not to use any of that energy for charging the computer’s internal batteries. This is achieved by disabling the center MagSafe pin, which is the computer’s communication line to the power adapter. After that, the battery bank could be programmed to behave properly (a feat in itself for lithium batteries) and the power bank was successfully put into operation.

Not only was this hack a great guide for how to repurpose cells from a “dead” battery, it’s also an unparalleled quick reference for any work that might need a MagSafe connector. Of course, if you’re going to work with these chargers, make sure that you’re using one that isn’t a cheap clone.