Sony plans to boost battery performance 40 percent by 2020
‘Hoverboard’ Scooter Fires: Faulty Batteries May Be to Blame.
Keeping a phone charged all day can be a task, but Sony has announced plans for a new battery that could carry 40 percent more energy than the traditional lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. 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.
A typical lithium-sulfur battery consists of two electrodes – a lithium metal anode and a sulfur-carbon cathode – surrounded by a conductive fluid, or electrolyte. Some online retailers are pulling certain brands off their virtual shelves following several incidents in which the futuristic devices caught fire or exploded. In lithium-sulfur batteries, an electric current is generated when lithium ions in the anode react with sulfur particles at the cathode during discharge.
Sony tells Nikkei that it’s working on a battery that uses sulfur at the negative electrode (and plain old lithium at the positive one) to provide an energy density per unit volume of 1,000 Wh/L. A team of engineers form University College London has been using X-ray imaging techniques to captures 3D views of what happens inside disposable lithium batteries. 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.
You might wonder why they’re bothering, but the study was initiated following a fire aboard a Boeing 787 Dreamliner at Heathrow Airport in 2013, which was found to be caused by a disposable lithium battery in the aircraft’s emergency locator transmitter. Sony, which was a key player in the development of Li-ion batters in the 1990s, intends produce a lithium-sulfur (Li-S) battery and a magnesium-sulfur (Mg-S) battery. 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.
Usually, those kinds of batteries are installed and forgotten about, allowing the systems to work indefinitely because of their relatively low power use. When the batteries hit the market in 2020, they will first be used for smartphones, regardless of the manufacturer, then other applications will follow. The designs for the 3,000mAh (milliampere hours) batteries, similar to the size fitted inside most smartphones, were shown off at the 56th Battery Symposium in Japan. A news report on the Huawei Fans blog reads: ‘Huawei is confident that this breakthrough in quick charging batteries will lead to a new revolution in electronic devices, especially with regard to mobile phones, electric vehicles, wearable devices, and mobile power supplies. Alternative chemistries tend to be less stable, and are worse at maintaining a high capacity through the hundreds of recharges that consumer electronics require.
All of these changes in structure affect the flow of electricity and reduce the performance of the cell.” You can see that damage clearly in the images above, published in Advanced Science, where long cracks form, emanating from the tips of the electrodes. A video released by the network and telecoms company showing off the technology shows how the battery is taken out of the handset and placed into a charge and plugged in.
Earlier this year a British firm revealed they created a tiny prototype hydrogen-powered fuel cell for the iPhone 6, which it said keeps the power-hungry handset running for a week without recharging. 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. It has even been rumoured the experts at Intelligent Energy are working with Apple to develop future models, but neither company has commented on speculations. 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. But, in essence, scientists have developed ways to ensure that the ions will flow from the anode end of the battery, through an electrolyte fluid and then reach the cathode, releasing energy as this occurs.
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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