02Apr 2016

For a seemingly simple device with only two electrical connections to it, a battery is deceivingly misunderstood by the broad population, especially as batteries are now a common fixture in our technology-laden daily lives. I will highlight in this post five common misconceptions about the lithium-ion battery:

1. STAND ON ONE LEG, EXTEND YOUR ARM, THEN PLUG YOUR CHARGER INTO YOUR DEVICE:

Well, not literally, but the acrobatic move captures the perceived hypersensitivity of the average consumer about past or secret special recipes that can help your battery. One of the silliest one I ever heard was to store the battery in the freezer to extend its life. PLEASE, DO NOT EVER DO THIS! Another silly is to charge the battery once it drops below 50%, or 40% or 30%….Let me be clear, you can use your phone down to zero and recharge it, and it will be just fine.

It is also now common to find apps that will “optimize” your battery. The reality is they do nada! Don’t bother.  Don’t also bother with task managers; no they don’t extend your battery life. Both Android and iOS are fairly sophisticated about managing apps in the background.

Turning off WiFi, GPS and Bluetooth will not extend your battery life, at least not meaningfully. These radios use such little power that turning them off will not give you any noticeable advantage. The fact is that your cellular radio signal (e.g., LTE) and your display (specifically when the screen is on) are the two primary consumers of battery life — and turning these off render your mobile device somewhat useless.

Lastly is the question of “should I charge the battery to 100%?” Well, yes! but you don’t have to if you don’t want to or can’t. In other words, stop thinking about it. The battery is fine whether you charge it to 100% or to 80% or anything else. Sure, for those of you who are battery geeks, yes, you will get more cycle life if the battery is not charged to 100%. But to the average population, you can do whatever you like — your usage is not wrong. These are design specifications that the device manufacturer is thinking about on your behalf.

2. LITHIUM BATTERIES HAVE LONG MEMORIES:

Yes, as long as the memory of a 95-year old suffering from Alzheimers!! Sarcasm aside, lithium ion batteries have zero memory effects. Now, if you are a techie intent on confusing your smartphone or mobile device, here’s a little trick. Keep your device’s battery between 30% and 70% always….this will confuse the “fuel gauge,” that little battery monitor that tells you how much juice you have left. The battery will be just fine but the fuel gauge will not report accurately. Every so often, the fuel gauge needs to hit close to zero and 100% to know what these levels truly are, otherwise the fuel gauge will not accurately report the amount of battery percentage. This is like your gas gauge in your car going kaput…it does not mean that the battery has memory or other deficiencies. Should you suspect that your fuel gauge is confused, charge your phone to 100% and discharge it down to 10% a few times. That is sufficient to recalibrate the gauge.

3. WE NEED NEW BATTERY CHEMISTRIES — THE PRESENT ONES ARE NO GOOD:

This one garners a lot of media interest. Every time a research lab makes a new discovery, it is headline news and makes prime time TV. The reality is that the path from discovery in the lab to commercial deployment is extremely rocky. There have been dozens such discoveries in the past 5 – 10 years, yet virtually none have made it into wide commercial deployment. History tells us it takes over $1 billion and about 10 years for a new material to begin its slow commercial adoption cycle….and for now, the pipeline is rather thin. Additionally, present lithium ion batteries continue to improve. Granted, it is not very fast progress, but there is progress that is sufficient to make great products….just think that current battery technology is powering some great electric vehicles.

Let me be more specific. Present-day lithium ion batteries are achieving over 600 Wh/l in energy density — that is nearly 10x what lead acid batteries can deliver. This is enough to put 3,000 mAh in your smartphone (sufficient for a full day of use), and 60  kWh in your electrical car (enough for 200 – 250 miles of driving range). With the proper control systems and intelligence, a mobile device battery can last 2 years or more, and an electric vehicle battery can last 10 years. Does it mean we stop here? of course not, but this sense of urgency to develop new materials or chemistries is rather misplaced. Instead, we need to keep optimizing the present batteries materials and chemistries. Just reflect on how silicon as a semiconductor material was challenged by other candidate materials in the 1980s and 1990s (do you remember Gallium Arsenide), only for it to continue its steady progress and become an amazing material platform for modern computation and communication.

4. LITHIUM-ION BATTERIES ARE EXPENSIVE:

What made silicon the king of semiconductor materials is its amazing cost curve, i.e., decreasing cost per performance, aka Moore’s law. Now, lithium ion batteries don’t have an equivalent to Moore’s law, but, the cost of making lithium ion batteries is dropping fast to the point they are rapidly becoming commoditized. A battery for a smartphone costs the device OEM somewhere between $1.50 and $3.00, hardly a limiting factor for making great mobile devices. GM and Tesla Motors have widely advertised that their battery manufacturing costs are approaching $100 /kWh. In other words, a battery with sufficient capacity to drive 200 miles (i.e., 50 to 60 kWh) has a manufacturing cost of $5,000 to $6,000 (excluding the electronics)…with continued room for further cost reduction. It’s not yet ready to compete with inexpensive cars with gas engines, but it sure is very competitive with mid-range luxury vehicles. If you are in the market for a BMW 3-series or equivalent, I bet you are keeping an eye on the new Tesla Model 3. Tesla Motors pre-sold nearly 200,000 Model 3 electric vehicles in the 24 hours after its announcement.  This performance at a competitive price is what makes the present lithium ion batteries (with their present materials) attractive and dominant especially vis-a-vis potentially promising or threatening new chemistries or new materials.

5. LITHIUM-ION BATTERIES ARE UNSAFE:

Why do we not worry about the immense flammability of gasoline in our vehicles? Isn’t combustion the most essential mechanism of gas-driven cars? Yet, we feel very safe in these cars. Car fires are seldom headline news. That’s because the safety of traditional combustion engine cars has evolved immensely in the past decades. For example, gas tanks are insulated and protected in the event of a car crash.

Yes, lithium is flammable under certain but well known conditions. But the safety of lithium ion batteries can be observed as religiously as car makers observe the safety of combustion engines. It is quite likely that some isolated accidents or battery recalls may occur in the future as lithium ion batteries are deployed even wider than they are today. In mobile devices, the track record on safety has been very good, certainly since the battery industry had to manage the safety recalls at the turn of the century. Is there room for progress and can we achieve an exceptional safety record with lithium ion batteries? Absolutely yes. There are no inherent reasons why it cannot be achieved, albeit it will take time, just like the automotive and airline industries have continuously improved the safety of their products.