Sony is building new battery chemistry to make smartphones last much longer
‘Hoverboard’ Scooter Fires: Faulty Batteries May Be to Blame.
According to Japanese newspaper Nikkei, Sony is working on both lithium-sulfur and magnesium-sulfur batteries to replace today’s lithium-Ion chemistry. Lithium-ion batteries (sometimes called Li-ion) have been powering our phones and laptops for so long, it’s easy to forget that other — potentially more promising — battery technologies exist.Self-balancing “hoverboard” scooters, once lauded as trendy electronic skateboards, are now the subject of an ongoing safety investigation in the United States.Since the original iPhone was released in 2007, we have seen some incredible advances in smartphone processing and GPU power along with a wealth of features improvement (faster Wi-Fi and cellular speeds, larger and higher resolution displays). But Sony has announced that it’s working on a new kind of lithium and sulfur energy storage that will provide 40 percent more life for a given battery volume, and should be ready as soon as 2020.
Some online retailers are pulling certain brands off their virtual shelves following several incidents in which the futuristic devices caught fire or exploded. But it’s likely not the boards themselves that are causing these flare-ups, but rather their energy sources: shoddily made lithium-ion batteries, experts say.
Over the years, we’ve listened to plenty of promises about the next battery breakthrough just over the horizon, and today, Sony is the latest to string us along. Phone makers can increase the battery’s size—which has already happened with the rise of jumbo-sized smartphones—and improve efficiency in other components such as the display, but they can’t make the battery itself any better. In order to help eat into the share of its competitors, Sony is developing a new type of battery chemistry that can boost runtimes by 40 percent compared to lithium-ion batteries of the same capacity.
Alternative chemistries tend to be less stable, and are worse at maintaining a high capacity through the hundreds of recharges that consumer electronics require. If more compact batteries for even smaller devices is the ultimate goal for OEMs — we’re looking at you, Apple — Sony’s sulfur batteries can also be made 30 percent smaller than traditional lithium-ion cells while maintaining the same run times.
Sony has shown that the batteries can operate without dissolving the electrode over repeated charging cycles, but it is now working to ensure that the new battery chemistry is safe enough for commercial use — the last thing that Sony needs is another “batterygate” on its hands. Nikkei notes that Sony hasn’t even ironed out the technical challenges yet, and that its lithium-sulfur batteries are still prone to “heat generation or ignition.” Why this matters: While this is hardly the first claim of drastic battery life improvements from lithium-sulfur—or other alternative chemistries, for that matter—it’s significant coming from Sony. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has seized 164 hoverboards that had fake batteries or other counterfeit signs, according to a statement from the agency. [9 Odd Ways Your Tech Device May Injure You] Lithium-ion batteries, first commercialized by Sony Corporation in 1991, give power to countless electronics, including cellphones, laptops, power tools and children’s toys.
With Sony publicly revealing its plans for new battery chemistry—and Nikkei noting that “other manufacturers” are engaged in their own developments—there’s reason to be optimistic that real improvements are coming. But Sony developed a way to contain the metal, said Lloyd Gordon, the chief electrical safety officer at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
In the mean time, we can just rely on smartphones that recharge incredibly fast or purchase devices that have comically large lithium-ion batteries to power through the work week. The battery cell containing these elements usually isn’t a problem, but the electronic circuitry surrounding the cell can cause glitches if the battery isn’t properly made, Gordon said. For example, a laptop might have 12 lithium-ion cells, “and there’s a little computer in the battery — it’s called a smart battery — that’s actually watching over and taking care of each cell,” Gordon said. “If one cell begins to go bad, it makes the battery stop working.” If a faulty lithium-ion battery is overcharged or overheats — possibly while a person is using it in a hoverboard or has it plugged into a charger — the ions can gather in one spot and be deposited as metallic lithium within the battery.
Meanwhile, the heat can cause oxygen bubbles within the gel. “Remember that oxygen and lithium don’t get along?” Gordon said. “Once the oxygen bubbles reach that lithium metal, it goes into an extremely hot reaction, like a sparkler on the Fourth of July. So can using the wrong charger, which means users should be careful to only use chargers made specifically for the device, and not to overcharge the board if the device doesn’t stop charging on its own, Gordon said.
Instead, people can use chemical-based fire extinguishers and call 911 to put out the flames. “Lithium fires are very dangerous, and we’ve had some catastrophic lithium fires, especially in the years [during the] development of lithium [batteries],” Gordon said. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is investigating at least 11 reports of hoverboard-related fires in 10 states from that past year, according to USA Today.
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