Search This Blog

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

What happens inside a Mobile battery right before it explodes?

The first thing we need to understand is how exactly the lithium-ion battery in your phone works. The name gives us a hint — electricity is carried from one electrode to another using charged lithium ions.

Lithium-ion batteries store, transfer and release energy because of natural chemical reactions. The battery has two electrodes — an anode and a cathode. The cathode is connected to the positive (+) connection on the battery and holds positively charged ions, and the anode is connected to the negative (-) connection and holds (you guessed it) negatively charged ions.
Between the two electrodes is what's called an electrolyte. The electrolyte in a lithium battery is (usually) an organic solvent paste that has a very large number of metallic salts (in most cases, that metal is lithium) as part of its makeup. This makes it electrically conductive — electricity can pass through it. The anode and the cathode are in the electrolyte and separated by a physical barrier so they can't touch.
When you discharge the battery (when you're using your phone and not charging it) the cathode pushes its positively charged ions away and the negatively charged anode attracts them. Electricity flows out from the anode, through your device, then back to the cathode. Yes, electricity travels through a loop and isn't "used up" by the thing being powered. When you charge your phone, the reverse happens and ions travel from the cathode through the electrolyte to the anode.
Lithium is the perfect element for rechargeable batteries: It's lightweight, easy to recharge and holds a charge for a long time.
When these ions come in contact with the charged atoms in an electrode, an electrochemical reaction called oxidation-reduction (redox) frees the charged electrons to travel out through the battery contacts, which are connected to the electrodes. This continues to charge the lithium ions in the electrolyte until there aren't enough left that can hold a positive charge that's strong enough to move through the electrolyte paste, and your battery will no longer charge.
Lithium is the lightest metal — number three on the periodic table. It's also very excitable, making it easy to create a powerful chemical reaction. This makes it a near-perfect metal to use in a portable rechargeable battery. It's lightweight, easy to recharge and continues to hold a charge for a long time.

 From the fiery Note 7 debacles to exploding hoverboards, lithium-ion batteries aren't doing so hot lately. A new study helps to explain how these popular power sources can turn into safety hazards.
In the paper, published in the Journal of the Electrochemical Society, scientists at the Canadian Light Source (CLS) synchrotron looked inside an overworked battery. In this case, they drained a battery until its voltage was below a critical level.
Overcharging or overworking deforms the insides of a battery. (A) shows the inside of a battery before it was misused. (B) shows how misuse causes the original design defects to become even more warped. (C) highlights the areas where warping got worse.
Toby Bond, Canadian Light Source
When we overcharge or overheat lithium ion batteries, the materials inside start to break down and produce bubbles of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and other gasses. Pressure builds up, and the hot battery swells from a rectangle into a pillow shape. Sometimes the phone involved will operate afterward. Other times it will die. And occasionally—kapow!
To see what's happening inside the battery when it swells, the CLS team used an x-ray technique called computed tomography.
Inside the battery is an electrode that spirals out from a central point like a jellyroll. The x-ray scan revealed that the bubbles produced during overheating warped and dented this electrode.
Intriguingly, the study authors found that the worst deformation from the gas buildup occurred in areas that had slight defects before the battery was ever over-drained. The authors note that doing more studies like this, on a larger variety of batteries, would improve understanding of how these batteries respond to gas evolution, which could lead to better designs.
As New Scientist notes, it's not clear whether the Samsung Note 7 catastrophes included pillowing or this type of deformation.