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Is Lithium-ion safe? Major battery recall raises concerns
Cadex Electronics Inc.
When Sony introduced the first lithium-ion battery in 1991, they knew of the potential safety risks. A recall of the previously released rechargeable metallic lithium battery was a bleak reminder of the discipline one must exercise when dealing with this high energy-dense battery system.
Pioneering work for the lithium battery began in 1912 by G. N. Lewis. It was not until the early 1970's when the first non-rechargeable lithium batteries became commercially available. Attempts to develop rechargeable lithium batteries followed in the eighties. These early models were based on metallic lithium and offered very high energy density. However, inherent instabilities of lithium metal, especially during charging, put a damper on the development. The cell had the potential of a thermal run-away. The temperature would quickly rise to the melting point of the metallic lithium and cause a violent reaction. A large quantity of rechargeable lithium batteries sent to Japan had to be recalled in 1991 after the pack in a cellular phone released hot gases and inflicted burns to a man's face.
Because of the inherent instability of lithium metal, research shifted to a non-metallic lithium battery using lithium ions. Although slightly lower in energy density, the lithium-ion system is safe, providing certain precautions are met when charging and discharging. Today, lithium-ion is one of the most successful and safe battery chemistries available. Two billion cells are produced every year.
Lithium-ion holds twice the energy of a nickel-based battery and four-times that of lead acid. Lithium-ion is a low maintenance system, an advantage that most other chemistries cannot claim. There is no memory and the battery does not require scheduled cycling to prolong its life. Nor does lithium-ion have the sulfation problem of lead acid that occurs when the battery is stored without periodic topping charge. Lithium-ion has a low self-discharge and is environmentally friendly. Disposal causes minimal harm.
With the high usage of lithium-ion in cell phones, digital cameras and laptops, there are bound to be issues. A one-in-200,000 failure rate triggered a recall of almost six million lithium-ion packs used in laptops manufactured by Dell and Apple. Heat related battery failures are taken very seriously and manufacturers chose a conservative approach. The decision to replace the batteries puts the consumer at ease and lawyers at bay. Let's now take a look at what's behind the recall.