Chemistry

22Nov 2016

Qualcomm announced this week their 4th generation Quick Charge™ technology to be available in their upcoming Snapdragon 835 chipset. Quick Charge™ 4 continues to build on making fast charging an integral part of modern smartphones and consumer devices. In this latest generation, Qualcomm adds a number of key features, in particular, higher efficiency in delivering the power from the wall socket to the device, more power available for charging faster, and better thermal management. I applaud the continued evolution of Qualcomm’s QC technology.

As fast charging becomes an entrenched technology in the mobile landscape, the emphasis on battery safety itself during fast charging begins to take priority. As I highlighted in this earlier post, fast charging done improperly causes irreparable damage to the battery causing a loss of capacity (mAh) or worse yet, battery safety problems. Combining fast charging with high-energy density cells, especially the new generation that is operating at 4.4V, is a recipe for potential disasters. This post is about what can go wrong when we mix fast charging with high-energy density batteries, but neglect to implement the necessary charging intelligence and the necessary controls around the battery.

First, let me clarify a few things.

  • Fast charging includes the realm of charging the battery at rates near or above 1C . At 1C, the battery charges to half-full from empty (0 to 50%) in 30 minutes. QC 4.0 is capable to going at twice that rate, or 2C. That is very fast.
  • High-energy density batteries are those with energy densities in excess of 600 Wh/l, with the most recent ones at or near 700 Wh/l. The newest generation of these batteries are almost universally operating at 4.4V. This earlier post explains the risks and perils of operating at this voltage.
  • The last point I want to clarify is that the common charging approaches, namely CCCV and step charging do NOT provide any intelligence or controls around charging. They are open-loop methods with no mechanism to gauge the state or health of the battery in order to make the proper adjustments and avoid the risks that I will highlight below.

The mix of fast charging and high-energy batteries makes a very volatile situation. This reminds me of fancy car commercials with the fine print warning at the bottom of the screen: “Professional drivers on a closed course. Do not attempt.” Fast charging high-energy batteries is rapidly approaching this realm of cautionary warnings. The consequences of neglecting such advice can be dire especially as smartphone fires are fresh in our collective memories.

So what can go wrong?

To begin with, lithium metal plating is a huge risk when one attempts to fast charge a 4.4V cell. We see lithium plating on most if not all cells from reputable battery suppliers when charged using CCCV or step charging. This is a serious problem if not mitigated with the proper battery intelligence. Left unchecked, lithium metal plating can lead to safety hazards and potential fires. What makes lithium metal plating even more hazardous is that it is not easy to detect its presence inside your smartphone. By the time it develops into a potential electrical short inside the battery, it is often too late. Therefore it is imperative that the intelligence in the battery management seeks to avoid its forming from the very beginning of the battery’s life in your smartphone.

A second serious hazard is excess swelling of the battery. Yes, the battery will physically grow thicker as it is repeatedly charged. It is nearly impossible to measure the thickness of the battery once it is embedded inside your smartphone. Clever estimates of the thickness without physically touching the battery belong to the category of advanced intelligent algorithms that are becoming increasingly necessary. You might say: so what, let the battery swell! Excessive swelling will most certainly break your display screen.

A third hazard relates to the battery’s behavior at high temperature. The electronics inside your device consume power and cause the smartphone to get hot.  Those of you who have fast charging on your devices will attest to this fact. One misconception is that the battery itself heats up because of fast charging. That is not correct. The battery gets hot because of the heat generated by the electronics inside the smartphone. These temperatures can rise inside the smartphone to 40 °C, and in some many cases approaching 45 °C. These elevated temperatures accelerate the degradation of materials inside the battery especially at the elevated voltages. This leads to a rapid loss of charge capacity (your mAh drop very quickly) accompanied with excessive swelling of the battery. If you are an Uber driver with your smartphone fast charging on your dashboard on a hot summer day, this does not bode well for you.

These are only three examples of potential battery safety hazards associated with fast charging high-energy density cells using traditional charging methods…each one of them can lead to serious battery safety problems. That’s a good time to heed the warning in the car commercials. If you are not a professional, please do not attempt.

07Nov 2016

For the average reader, electrochemical impedance spectroscopy, often abbreviated as EIS, is more than a mouthful. Understanding its utility can be relegated to the category of unresolved mysteries. Today’s post will shed some light and a little intuitive thinking on this powerful method.

The reader’s first question might be “why are you talking about EIS in a battery blog?” The answer is simple. EIS is the foremost standard  tool in laboratories around the world to measure electrochemical processes and reactions. Electrochemistry, one of the most extensive branches in chemistry, is the study of chemical reactions that have an inherent relationship to electricity, i.e. they can either generate electricity or can be influenced by electricity. Yes, you guessed right, batteries are a prime example of electrochemistry. Another practical example of electrochemistry put to good use: the gold plating on your necklace or bracelet.

What does the name EIS imply? Electrochemical impedance is scientific jargon that refers to the electrical resistance of the device under study, in this case, the lithium-ion battery. In its most elemental form, impedance is voltage divided by current. For electrical engineers, it represents components such as resistors or capacitors. For other scientists, it represents the resistance the device exhibits against the flow of electricity.

Spectroscopy is the branch of science that deals with how a property changes with frequency. Hence, EIS is the methodology and science that seek to understand how impedance measurements change with frequency, and more particularly, how these changes are intimately tied to the underlying chemical reactions.

Why frequency? Frequency adds a lot more information about the nature of the chemical process that is taking place. In science, frequency plays a very important role. Take for example the difference between blue and red light. They are both made of photons, but differ in frequency. Medical MRI imaging depends on the frequency of the oscillation of the hydrogen atoms in our bodies. Distinguishing between different broadcast stations on the radio dial operates on similar principles. In other words, we use frequency to uniquely identify chemical or physical processes.

With this long introduction, let’s dive a little deeper into EIS as related to a lithium-ion battery. If you were to measure the impedance of a standard electrical resistor component — the kind of components you may find inside your smartphone — you will find that you will measure exactly the same impedance value whether you apply a low voltage or a high voltage, or whether you measure at low frequency or high frequency. In other words, for this resistor component, the value is independent of voltage (also known as bias) and frequency. Resistors are consequently easy components to understand.

That is NOT the case for a battery.  Change the voltage or frequency and you will get a different value. In other words, the battery can look like a resistor in some circumstances, or like a capacitor in others, or some complex combinations of both. When we change the voltage of the battery, it now operates at a different “state of charge,” in other words, it will have a different amount of electrical charge stored in it. As I described in this earlier post on fuel-gauges, the terminal voltage of the battery is a direct proxy of the amount of electrical charge stored in the battery, which is the state of charge (or the percentage of battery remaining).

In contrast, changing the frequency relates to different electrochemical processes that occur inside the battery. Such electrochemical processes could relate to the diffusion of the electrical charge (in this case, the lithium ions) from one electrode to the other. One can imagine that the ions have to travel a certain distance and insert themselves in the “Swiss-cheese” matrix of the material. So intuitively, this feels like a slow process, and it is. It takes several seconds to even minutes for the lithium ion to go through this diffusion process — meaning that diffusion of ions is characterized by a low-frequency signature. A distinctly different electrochemical process is how lithium ions and electrons interact right at the surface of the electrode. This interaction involves electrons and ions over very short distances. Intuitively, one can see that this can be a very fast reaction, usually on the order of microseconds. Hence its signature contains high frequency signals.

reactions

All of this goes to say that the impedance value at a particular frequency is a “unique signature” for the underlying electrochemical process of interest to our study. And that is what makes EIS such a powerful tool. To the trained scientist, he or she can read the EIS measurement as a map of the various electrochemical processes and reactions that are taking place inside the battery without cutting it open or damaging it. It also provides tremendous insight into what can also go wrong inside the battery. Not all electrochemical processes are desirable. For example, the underlying process that causes lithium metal plating is highly undesirable and can be readily measured using its unique EIS signature.

So how is the measurement made? In the laboratory, the oft-expensive and bulky instrument applies a small electrical current at a well defined frequency to the battery, then measures the voltage. Divide the voltage by the current and you now have the impedance at this frequency. For example, apply 1 mA of current at a frequency of 100 Hz, you might measure 0.5 mV. Hence the impedance is 0.5mV/1mA = 0.5 ohms at 100 Hz. This, of course, does not take into account the complex value of the impedance but it is a simple illustration of the concept. “Complex” numbers are mathematical tools to show values that have both real and imaginary components. Don’t worry if you don’t understand them fully —the key thing is that an impedance measurement has two values to represent it.

eis

A full EIS chart shows by convention the imaginary component of the impedance (vertical axis) vs. its real value (horizontal axis). The far left of the chart shows the measurements made at high frequencies, in particular highlighting what happens in the metal conductors inside the battery as well as what occurs at the surfaces of the electrodes. As we follow the purple dots and move towards the right, the frequency of the signature gradually decreases highlighting now a different set of electrochemical processes, in particular what happens at the insulating interface between the electrode and the electrolyte (also known as SEI layer). Ultimately, to the far right of the chart, the frequency is low and is unique to the diffusion effects of the lithium ions.

An EIS tool is present in every electrochemistry laboratory around the world. Young graduates in this discipline spend countless hours operating this tool. It is not a small instrument…it fits on a desk, may weigh several pounds, and costs several thousands of dollars. Now imagine how the world would look like if an EIS tool can somehow fit inside each and every smartphone!

18Oct 2016

State-of-the-art lithium-ion batteries, whether used in smartphones or electric vehicles, all rely on the same fundamental cell structure: two opposing electrodes with an intermediate insulating separator layer, with lithium ions shuffling between the two electrodes.

The positive electrode during charging, usually called the cathode, consists of a multi-metal oxide alloy material. Lithium-cobalt-oxide, or LCO, is by far the most common for consumer electronic applications. NCM, short for lithium nickel-cobalt-manganese oxide, also known as NMC, is gradually replacing other materials in energy storage and electric vehicle applications. LCO and NCM have a great property of storing lithium ions within their material matrix. Think of a porous swiss cheese: the lithium ions insert themselves between the atomic layers.

In contrast, the anode, or negative electrode during charging, is almost universally made of carbon graphite. Carbon historically was and continues to be the material of choice. It has a large capacity to store lithium ions within its crystalline matrix, much like the metal oxide cathode.

So how do manufacturers increase energy density? In some respects, the math is simple. In practice, it gets tricky.

Energy density equals total energy stored divided by volume. The total stored energy is dictated by the amount of active material, i.e., the available amount of metal oxide alloy as well as graphite that can physically store the lithium ions (i.e., the electric charge). So battery manufacturers resort to all types of design tricks to reduce the volume of inactive material, for example, reducing the thickness of the separator and metal connectors. Of course, there are limits with safety topping the list. To a large extent, this is what battery manufacturers did for the past 20 years — amounting largely to about a 5% increase annually in energy density.

But once this extra volume of inactive material is reduced to its bare minimum, increasing energy density gets tricky and challenging. This is the difficult wall that the battery industry is facing now. So what is next?

There are two potential paths forward:

1.  Find a way to pack more ions (i.e., more electric charge) within the electrodes. This is the topic of much research to develop new materials capable of such feat. But any such breakthrough is still several years away from commercial deployment, leaving the second option to….

2.  Increase the voltage. Since energy equals charge multiplied by voltage, increasing the voltage also raises the amount of energy (remember that energy and charge are related but are not commutable). This is the object of today’s post.

The battery industry raised the voltage a few years back from a maximum of 4.2 V to the present-day value of 4.35 V. This was responsible for adding approximately 4 to 5% to the energy density. A new crop of batteries is now beginning to operate at 4.4 V, adding an additional 4 to 5% to the energy density. But that does not come without some serious challenges. What are they?

First, there is the electrolyte. It is a gel-like solvent that imbibes the inside of the battery. Short of a better analogy, if ions are like fish, then the electrolyte is like water. It is the medium within which the lithium ions can travel between the two electrodes. As the voltage rises, it subjects the electrolyte to increasingly higher electric fields causing its early degradation and breakdown. So we are now seeing a new generation of electrolytes that can in principle withstand the higher voltage — albeit, we see in our lab testing that some of these electrolyte formulations are responsible for worse cycle life performance. This is a first example of the compromises that battery designers are battling.

Second, there is the structural integrity of the cathode. Let’s take LCO as an example. If we peer a little closer into the cathode material (see the figure below), we find a crystal structure with layers made of cobalt and oxygen atoms. When the battery is fully discharged, the lithium ions occupy the vacant space between these ordered layers. In fact, there is a proportion of lithium ions to cobalt and oxygen atoms: there is one lithium ion for every one cobalt and two oxygen atoms.

lco

courtesy of visualization for electronic and structural analysis (VESTA)

As the battery is charged, the lithium ions leave the cathode to the anode vacating some of the space between the ordered layers of the LCO cathode. But not all the lithium ions can leave; if too many of them leave, then the crystal structure of the cathode collapses and the material changes its properties. This is not good. So only about half of the lithium ions are “permitted” to leave during charging. This “permission” is determined by, you guessed it, the voltage. Right about 4.5 V, the LCO crystal structure begins to deteriorate, so one can easily see that at 4.4 V, the battery is already getting too close to the cliff.

Lastly, there is lithium plating. High energy-density cells push the limit of the design and tolerances in order to reduce the amount of material that is not participating in the storage. One of the unintended consequences is an “imbalance” between the amount of cathode and anode materials. This creates an “excess” of lithium ions that then deposit as lithium metal, hence plating.

These three challenges illustrate the increasing difficulties that battery manufacturing must overcome to continue pushing the limits of energy density. As they make progress, however, compromises become the norm. Cycle life is often shortened. Long gone are the days of 1,000+ cycles without intelligent adaptive controls. Fast charging becomes questionable. In some cases, safety may be in doubt. And the underlying R&D effort costs a lot of money with expenses that are stretching the financial limits of battery manufacturers without the promise of immediate financial returns in a market that is demanding performance at a the lowest possible price.

It is great to be a battery scientist with plenty of great problems to work on…but then again, may be not.

15Sep 2016

A recent article published by The Verge attempted to explain the science behind the exploding Samsung Note 7 batteries. The article touches on several important aspects of battery safety but the handwaving did not really talk about much science. So this post will address a failure mode of lithium-ion batteries and how defects can form during manufacturing with catastrophic results.

One of my earlier posts described the inner structure of a lithium battery. In a nutshell, there are alternating material layers that form the basic structure of the battery: a sandwich of two electrodes, called the anode and the cathode, with an insulating separator between them. During manufacturing, these layers are assembled then rolled together like a cigar before they are packaged into a protective sleeve. This is a gross simplification but highlights the basic structure and assembly of the lithium-ion battery. With some minor exceptions, the manufacturing is primarily an assembly process, and does not resemble in any form the manufacturing processes used in semiconductor devices.

The first figure below shows a rudimentary drawing of the basic structure of the lithium-ion cell. The graphite anode, shown in black, sits counter to the cathode, shown in green. The separator, shown in blue, is sandwiched between the two electrodes and acts as an insulator, in other words, its primary function is to prevent internal electric shorts between the two conductive electrodes. We all know that electric shorts are not good!

One of the basic requirements in the design of the battery is for the graphite anode to physically extend beyond the edges of the cathode. In other words, the anode is wider than the cathode at every point, especially the long edges of the sheets. This is needed to maintain safety within the cell and prevent the formation of lithium metal. Intuitively, there has to be more anode material than cathode material to absorb all the lithium ions. When the anode is not properly sized, the excess lithium ions will deposit as lithium metal, and that is called lithium plating. If you would like to dig a little deeper into lithium plating, this earlier post will shed some additional insight.

In practical terms, the anode is wider than the cathode ever so slightly, only a few percents. Any extra width of the anode does not participate in energy storage. In other words, the extra width of the anode is required for safety reasons, but does not contribute to charge storage. So battery designers go to extremes to optimize the extra width of the anode for the requisite safety.

As energy density increases, these battery designers have limited choices, one of them is to reduce the width margin of the anode. This means that the additional width of the anode relative to the cathode is now at its bare minimum. Any errors in manufacturing that jeopardize this extra overlap may have dire consequences.

battery safety figure 1

So now let’s examine one particular manufacturing defect where a slight misalignment between the anode and cathode occurs during the assembly process. The figure below shows the same structure as above but now the anode layer is shifted ever so slightly to the right.

battery safety figure 2

At the misaligned edge, the requisite overlap of the anode relative to the cathode is now diminished or even possibly vanished. The A/C ratio at this locale drops below the requisite limit for ensuring safety. The result, as you expected, is the onset of lithium metal at this edge. The lithium metal forms on the anode edge. As the lithium metal grows in size and thickness, it ultimately punctures the separator and causes an electrical short between the anode and cathode. Boom! we now have a catastrophic failure.

battery safety figure 3

So this begs the question: why did Samsung release new software that limits the maximum charge in the faulty Galaxy Note 7 to only 60% of maximum? It is because the risk of lithium metal plating heavily depends on the voltage and the maximum charge in the battery. This is evident in the voltage chart of this earlier post: the higher the voltage, i.e., the higher maximum allowed charge, the higher the risk of lithium metal plating.

I will close by reiterating one final thought. The tolerance requirements in the manufacturing of lithium ion batteries have risen sharply with increasing energy density. Short of using new materials (that still do not exist in commercial deployment), increasing the energy density means reducing all the extra space inside the battery that is not made of anode and cathode materials. These are the only two materials that store energy. Everything else is just overhead…i.e., dead weight. They are still needed for other functions and safety, but they do not contribute to storing electrical charge. So battery designers keep reducing this overhead and in the process, make the manufacturing tolerances every so tight….and that is a recipe for many disasters to come unless we start adding a lot more intelligence to the battery to avoid and mitigate these undesired situations.

17Jun 2016

I will jump ahead in this post to discuss the merits of different lithium-ion chemistries and their suitability to energy storage systems (ESS) applications. Naturally, this assumes that lithium-ion batteries in general are among the best suited technologies for ESS. Some might take issue with this point — and there are some merits for such a discussion that I shall leave to a future post.

Made of two electrodes, the anode and the cathode, it is the choice of the cathode material that determines several key electrical attributes of the lithium-ion battery, in particular energy density, safety, longevity (cycle life) and cost. The most commonly used cathode materials are Li cobalt oxide (known as LCO), Li nickel cobalt aluminum (NCA), Li nickel manganese (NCM), Li iron phosphate (LFP) and Li manganese nickel oxide (LMNO).

EnergyDensity

LCO is by far the most common being the choice for consumer devices from smartphones to PCs. It is widely manufactured across Asian battery factories and the supply chain is very pervasive…as a result, and despite the use of cobalt (an expensive material), it bears the lowest cost per unit of energy with consumer batteries being priced near $0.50 /Ah, or equivalently, $130/kWh. LCO offers very good energy density and a cycle life often ranging between 500 and 1,500 cycles. From a material standpoint, LCO can potentially catch fire or explode especially if the battery is improperly designed or operated. That was the primary reason for the battery recalls that were frequent some 10 years ago. Proper battery design and safety electronics circuitry have greatly improved the situation and made LCO batteries far safer.

NCA came to prominence with Tesla’s use of the Panasonic 18650 cells in their model S (and the earlier Roadster). It has exceptional energy density — which translates directly to more miles of driving per charge. But NCA has a limited cycle life, often less than 500 cycles. Historically NCA was expensive because of its use of cobalt and limited manufacturing volume. This is rapidly changing with Tesla’s growing volume and the Gigafactory coming online in 2017. It is widely rumored that Tesla’s cost is at or near the figures for LCO, i.e., near $100/kWh at the cell level. It remains to be seen whether Panasonic will replicate these costs for the general market.

NCM sits between LCO and NCA. It has good energy density, better cycle life than NCA (in the range of 1,000 to 2,000 cycles) and is considered inherently less prone to safety hazards than LCO. Its historical usage was in power tools but it has become recently a serious candidate material for automotive applications. In principal, NCM cathodes should be less expensive to manufacture owing to their use of manganese, quite an inexpensive material. The two Korean conglomerates, LG Chem and Samsung SDI, are major advocates and manufacturers of NCM-based batteries.

One of the oldest used cathode materials is LMNO, or sometimes referred to as LMO. The Nissan Leaf battery uses LMNO cathodes. It is safe, reliable with long cycle life, and is relatively inexpensive to manufacture. But it suffers from low energy density especially relative to NCA. If you ever wondered why the Tesla has a far better driving range than the Leaf, the choice of cathode materials is an important part of your answer. It is not widely used outside of Japan.

Finally, we come to lithium iron phosphate, or LFP. Initially invented in North America in the 1990s, it has developed a strong manufacturing base today in China, with the Chinese government extending it significant economic incentives to make China a manufacturing powerhouse for LFP-batteries. LFP has exceptional cycle life, often exceeding 3,000 cycles, and is considered very safe. A major shortcoming of LFP is its reduced energy density: about one third that of LCO, NCA or NCM. It, in principle, should be inexpensive to manufacture. After all, iron and phosphorus are two inexpensive materials. But reality suggests otherwise: the lower energy density requires the use of twice or three times as many cells to build a battery pack with the same capacity as LCO or NCA. As a result, LFP-based batteries cost today 2 or 3x more than equivalent LCO-based battery packs.

By now, you are probably scratching your head and asking: so which one wins? and that is precisely the conundrum for energy storage and to some extent, electric vehicles. Let’s drill deeper.

Energy storage applications pose a few key requirements on the battery: 1) the battery should last 10 years with daily charge and discharge, or in other words, has a cycle life specification of 3,500 cycles or more; 2) it has to be immensely cost-effective, measured both in its upfront capital cost and cost of ownership; in other words, the total cost of owning and operating it over its 10-year life; and 3) it has to be safe.

The first and third requirements are straightforward: they make LFP and NCM favorites. LFP inherently has long cycle life, and NCM, if charged only to about 80% of its maximum capacity also can offer a very long cycle life. So if you wondered why Tesla quietly dropped its 10-kWh PowerWall product,  it is because it is made with NCA cathodes and cannot meet the very long cycle life requirement of daily charging.

The second requirement gets tricky. Right now, neither LFP nor NCM are sufficiently inexpensive to make a very compelling economic case to operators of energy storage systems (ESS) — setting government incentives aside. So the question boils down to which one of them will have a steeper cost reduction curve over time. Such a question naturally creates two camps of followers, each arguing their respective case.

Notice that high energy density does not factor in these requirements, at least not directly. Unlike consumer devices or electric vehicles, ESS seldom have a volume or weight restriction and thus, in principle, can accommodate batteries with lower energy density. The problem, however, is that batteries with lower energy density do not necessarily correspond to lower cost per unit of energy. It actually costs more to manufacture a 3Ah battery using LFP than it does using NCA. This makes energy density a critical factor in the math. Lower energy density equals more needed batteries to assemble a bigger battery pack, and thus more cost. For now, in the battle between LFP and NCM, the jury is still out though my personal opinion is that NCM, by virtue of its higher energy density, has an advantage. On the other hand, China’s uninhibited support for LFP can potentially tip the scale. More later.

Before I adjourn, I would like to rebuke an oft-made statement by some builders of ESS: that they are “battery agnostic.” To them, batteries are a commodity that can be easily interchanged among vendors and suppliers, much like commodity components in a consumer electronic product. I am hoping that the reader gleans from this post the great number of subtleties and complexities involved in the choice of the proper battery in an ESS. The notion of battery-agnostic in this space is utterly misplaced and only points to the illiteracy of the engineers building these ESS. If the battery fires on the 787 Dreamliner can permanently remind us of one lesson, it should be to never underestimate the consequences of neglecting the complexities of the battery. They can be very severe and immensely costly. Battery-agnostic is battery-illiterate.