02Sep 2016

The images of melted Samsung Note 7 smartphones are all over the internet. News of Samsung’s massive recall are headline news. It is embarrassing to Samsung Mobile, its marketing and engineering teams, and most certainly its executives. Consumers are wondering how could Samsung ship units with defective batteries that can catch fire.

It is easy but not right to pick on Samsung or be critical of the company at this moment. Why? because this could happen to anyone…that’s right, anyone. If you are an OEM of smartphone devices or consumer devices with lithium-ion batteries, this is the time for you to pay attention to your products because you could be next.

While this sounds ominous, the intent here is to raise safety awareness in the entire ecosystem that depends on batteries. Samsung happened to be the first unlucky company to exhibit the strains that have been accumulating now for several years. I have covered in several past posts how the battery industry has been hitting the wall. Battery materials are reaching their limits. Battery economics are not favorable. Yet, the performance demands on batteries continue to rise. All of these factors are and continue to be precursors to the situation that Samsung finds itself in.

As is often the case in life, we tend to remain complacent until a crisis hits. The crisis is here, and now. Samsung is first to feel the pain, but each and every company in this ecosystem, from consumer devices to energy storage and electric vehicles, should acknowledge the severity of the situation and participate in its solution. Again, why?

This perfect storm has been brewing for a while, in particular, the drive to increase energy density along with faster charging while making less expensive batteries. Increased energy density and faster charging operate the battery near its physical limits. In other words, the margins for error at these elevated performance levels are really thin. For example, the newest lithium-ion cells now operate at a terminal voltage of 4.4 Volts, up from 4.2 Volts a few years back. This increase in voltage is one of the underlying physical tenants of increased energy density, yet it moves the battery every so close to the edge of the safety abyss. Another example relates to charging speed: it is widely accepted now that charge rates are approaching if not exceeding 1C. Electric vehicle makers are actively exploring very fast charging for EVs. Tesla is deploying their superchargers at a fast pace. These superchargers can charge a Tesla model at up to 1.5C, i.e., put in half a tank in about 20 minutes. Fast charging wreaks havoc inside the cell if not properly managed.

So now add the push for making less expensive batteries. Battery manufacturing, unlike semiconductors, does not scale. There is no equivalent of Moore’s law. In other words, as energy density increases, the cost per Wh (per energy unit) does not decrease…au contraire, it tends to increase because manufacturing tolerances get tighter. As a result, capital expenditures go up. Combine that with low-cost, low-quality batteries coming out of China and at a fundamental level, you can see how the financials of battery companies do not look pretty. This invariably leads to changes in manufacturing processes as companies seek more efficient ways to manufacture. But when the design margin of error is so thin, it does not take much before small variations in manufacturing lead to disastrous consequences. Remember, all it took in the case of Samsung was 35 failing devices out of a total of 2,500,000 shipped to cause a recall. This is a failure rate of 14 ppm (parts per million). It is a small number but, clearly, not small enough.

This is not to say that battery manufacturing and battery technology are doomed. There are countless examples in history where engineers built far more complex systems and structures safely and economically…but usually these include a change in paradigm. For example, pause for a second and compare the first commercial airplanes with the most recent jetliners. The newest Boeing and Airbus commercial airliners are marvels in computation and software. Fly-by-wire and automated systems with redundancy are the norm today, yet these new airplanes are scantily faster than their predecessors. In other words, the industry added so much more intelligence and shifted the burden to computation. The result is that modern planes are vastly safer than ever and far more economical to operate.

This is precisely the opportunity in front of the battery manufacturers and their customers, the OEMs, to think deep and hard on how they are going to implement a lot more intelligence to manage their batteries. Kudos to Sony for recognizing this….the batteries in their smartphones carry a great deal of intelligence, perform incredibly well and are safe. I am biased here…a lot of that intelligence is from Qnovo, but that should not diminish from the importance of the point of needing intelligence to manage the vanishing margins of error that battery designers have to cope with.