Chemistry

20Sep 2014

Damage in a battery happens. You can’t stop it. It’s part of the physics. Yes, it is possible to mitigate it. It is possible to postpone its onset. It is possible to reduce its impact (that’s part of what our company Qnovo does)… But it’s always there and we need to deal with it. Battery manufacturers have tended to sweep this issue under the rug but it is now coming back to bite them hard.

In technical terms, this damage inside the battery is referred to in terms of “cycle life.” It is essentially a measure of how many times the battery can be charged and discharged before it is deemed dead. As I mentioned in the previous post, a battery is deemed dead when its maximum capacity reaches 80% of its original capacity as a fresh battery. So say a fresh battery has a maximum capacity of 2,500 mAh on its first day of use. After some number of charges and discharges, the internal damage reduces this maximum capacity. Eventually, this figure reaches 80% x 2,500 mAh = 2,000 mAh at which point it is officially deemed to be “dead”, i.e., it needs to be replaced.

Why 80%? and not 75% or 63.1849%? Because experience has shown that shortly past the 80%-mark, the damage accelerates rapidly and the battery capacity plummets very quickly. Not good!

But now you are saying, “how can I know?” Well, welcome to the world of opacity in how battery makers specify their products. As a consumer, you don’t know, nor you can measure it easily. Device makers tell you trust me, but you should not! All these apps that you can download from the Apple or Google stores also don’t tell you anything. Right now, sadly, the only way you can tell that your battery is dead or dying is because it feels that it is dying. Your battery can’t last you the day when only a few months earlier it did. Now to be sure, you also have to make sure that you don’t have one or more rogue apps draining the battery in the background. So if you reset or even restore your mobile device and its battery is still not delivering, then it is a fairly strong hint that something is very wrong with the battery. If you are asking “why can’t you fix it,” the answer is “we can and we are.” Let your mobile device manufacturer know that you are not happy if you suspect your battery cycle life is compromised.

Let’s get back to cycle life. As you can see, cycle life and battery capacity are very closely tied together. Capacity is effectively the capacity that you get on your first day of operation, and cycle life is a measure of longevity of your battery’s capacity. Cycle life is almost like the “Expiration Date” printed on a gallon of milk at the grocery store; except imagine that grocery stores decided one day to simply eliminate printing this crucial date. Grocery stores don’t dare do it! Well, many mobile device manufacturers choose to hide or not disclose the cycle life — effectively this expiration date of the battery is hidden. We are working on changing this behavior. But for now, I will give you some hints and tips on how to deal with this.

Most mobile devices including smartphones and tablets are rated to 500 cycles, i.e., you, the consumer, can expect to have 500 consecutive full charges and full discharges before your battery is deemed dead. Some devices do better than others. For example, older Apple iPhones lasted more than 500 cycles, whereas others either made 500 or fell shy of that figure. 

But some carriers (or operators are they are called outside the US), and in particular, Verizon Wireless, began demanding that mobile device manufacturers increase their cycle life specifications to 800 or more cycles, to effectively cover a 2-year warranty on the device. This new specification is beginning to proliferate but battery manufacturers are not happy! Increasing cycle life performance is not easy for them, and guess what, most of them are based in Asia and they don’t like to ask for help!

So one of the tricks that manufacturers do to increase cycle life is to — hold on to your seat — increase charge times! Ouch! Now, you are becoming increasing familiar with the battery whack-a-mole strategy that battery manufacturers follow. You want more capacity, well, you may get worse cycle life…you want better cycle life, well, you will get worse charge times….and so on.

Fortunately, the technology to fix this whack-a-mole problem already exists…mobile device manufacturers have to deploy it more universally. For now, here are some hints — albeit a little inconvenient — that you can apply to extend the cycle life of your life battery:

  • Charge your device slowly using the USB port on your PC or notebook, not wall charger or AC adapter. This effectively limits the charging current to 500 mA. Yes, it is slow, but if you are not in a rush, it will help your battery.
  • Charge at room temperature! Not on your car dashboard in the middle of a hot sunny day, or worse yet, in the middle of a cold winter. Batteries hate being charged at temperature extremes, especially below 60 °F (or 15 °C), and above 95 °F (or 35 °C).
  • If you are not traveling or need your phone fully charged all day, then charge your battery to about 80 or 85% — not to 100%. This will also help being gentle on the battery. 

More later.

19Sep 2014

Yes, I did. That’s when you wake up a few months after you make a proud investment in a new mobile device, then you realize that the battery is not lasting as long as you wanted.

Well, first to be safe, you have to make sure that you don’t have too many apps running in the background draining the battery without your knowledge or your permission. But assuming that you already reset your phone, deleted the useless applications, and turned off all the background app refreshing, and you are still not getting the battery life that you had only a few weeks or months ago, then you are right, you are now experiencing the signs of battery damage, or in geek terms, it’s called “capacity fade.”

Remember when we talked earlier about the charge capacity of a battery and said it is measured in units of mAh. So let’s say that you battery is rated at 2,500 mAh. So when your device is fully charged, and your fuel gauge in the upper right hand corner of your screen is reading 100%, it means that your battery is holding about 2,500 mAh of electrical charge…using the earlier analogy of the water bucket, it means the bucket is full and is holding some number of gallons of water.

But this assumes that the battery is new. As damage sets in the battery, its maximum capacity will actually degrade over time and use. This can happen for many reasons, such as poor manufacturing, extended exposure to low or high temperatures…etc. (we will get back to this at a later time). So the battery you have now has a maximum capacity of say 2,200 mAh instead of 2,500 mAh. In other words, you will notice a decrease in your battery life by about 1 to 2 hours per day.  

So now you are frowning, and possibly complaining: “But, but, but….the fuel gauge is still reading 100% when it is full.” Yes, the fuel gauge only reads the available charge in the battery as a fraction of the maximum available capacity in the battery (it’s a mouthful). In other words, on day one, your battery was able of holding 2,500 mAh, so 100% of the fuel gauge is then equal to 2,500 mAh. But after 6 months of use, the battery can only hold 2,200 mAh, and the 100% displayed by the fuel gauge is now equal to only 2,200 mAh. Ouch! 

If you are thinking about where you can read the lower battery capacity of 2,200 mAh, the answer is nowhere. You can’t. The smartphone manufacturer and battery vendors either can’t tell you or don’t want to tell you. This is called “state of health” of the battery. 

When the battery capacity drops to 80% of its original capacity — in our example here, it is 80% x 2,500 mAh = 2,000 mAh — the battery is deemed dead and must be replaced. But as you gathered, it has been difficult if not nearly impossible for customers and consumers to prove that they have a dead battery. 

17Sep 2014

The lithium-ion rechargeable battery lives in many of our devices today, from our laptop PCs, to our tablets, and our smartphones, and many other devices that are not tethered to a power outlet. It has replaced the older generation of batteries such as nickel-metal-hydrides (also known with their abbreviation NiMH) and the more toxic nickel-cadmium (NiCd) batteries. You can still buy NiMH batteries at your local electronics store or Amazon: they are the size of the standard AA or AAA battery but can be recharged about a hundred times. They tend to be useful for your light torch or your children’s toys, but they are not used any longer in mobile devices or other gizmos that require longer battery life.

The lithium-ion battery is today’s king of the hill. It contains about 5 times more energy than the NiMH battery…in other words, it lasts 5 times longer. It comes in many different shapes; it can be a cylinder or it can be in a thin flat rectangular shape such as the one in your iPhone. It also requires proper care and operation. For example, if not properly charged in its appropriate wall charger, it may catch fire or worse yet, explode. 

lithium ion battery in iPhone 6
Lithium-ion battery in the iPhone 6

One of the key characteristics of a lithium-ion rechargeable battery is its maximum capacity to hold electrical charge. This is measured by the amount of electrical charge when fully charged, and is given in units of milliamp-hours, abbreviated as mAh. It is not a unit of energy. It is a unit of electrical charge. Higher numbers are better. More electrical charge means longer life and longer use time. Think of it as a bucket of water….capacity tells you the volume of your bucket. 

To convert from electrical charge to energy, one multiplies mAh by the battery voltage. Most lithium-ion batteries have a voltage of about 3.8 Volts (notice, this is way less than the typical 120 Volts out of your home outlet). So if we take the iPhone 6 battery, its capacity is 1,810 mAh (look at the bottom of the battery photo). When we multiply it by its voltage 3.82 Volts, then we get an energy of 6.91 Watt-hours (abbreviated as Wh). Once again, higher numbers are better.

So let me put this in perspective. One gallon of gasoline contains 34,000 (yes, thousand) Watt-hours. One gallon of gas has the equivalent energy of nearly 5,000 iPhone 6 batteries. So a takeaway here: You should appreciate why it has been difficult to make rechargeable batteries last for a very long long time.

Now, just because you have a bucket that has a given volume, it does not mean that you have that much volume of water in the bucket. First, you need to fill your bucket. That’s exactly what “charging” does to the battery. It fills it with electrical charge. When the battery is fully charged, its battery meter reads 100%. That’s the little gauge that shows up on the upper right hand side of your smartphone screen. Surprise, surprise, it is called the “fuel gauge.” When you use your battery, the meter reading decreases until it gets to 0%. Presumably, your anxiety level has risen a lot before you reach the zero level.

Ok, now here’s a little secret. Zero-percent reading of the fuel gauge is not really empty. It just means that you can no longer take charge out of the battery — mostly for safety reasons. The electronic systems in your device are smart enough to say STOP and shut it down. So it’s ok if you take your mobile battery to zero. It may be inconvenient to have an “empty” battery but it will not damage your lithium-ion battery. And no, there’s no memory effect in lithium-ion batteries.

More later.

16Sep 2014

1. JUST A SIMPLE INTRODUCTION.

If you are a consumer who has wondered why your lithium-ion battery in your mobile device fails your expectations, this blog is for you. If you are technically savvy but you are not a chemist, and often wondered how this lithium-ion battery works the way it does, then this blog is for you. If you are just curious about how to get more out of your lithium-ion battery, then again, this blog is for you.

You have searched the internet for information on the battery inside your gizmo, how it works, how you should take care of it, what the fancy technical terms really mean, and what the manufacturer is promising you and what you are really obtaining….and I am sure you often felt frustrated because, well, little of it made sense to you. You are not alone.

The fact is batteries have for a long time been a forgotten corner of technology. Before mobile devices became anchored in our daily lives, the battery meant that blackbox under the hood of our cars. Batteries did not evoke “clean” or “high-tech.” We wanted a low-cost battery that cranked our engines even in the coldest days of winter.

Then came mobile devices, and now electrified vehicles… and things got more complicated. Everyone had an opinion, or a theory. “No, don’t discharge to empty!” or “Beware, it has a memory effect.” The fact is most of this advice is not based on real science and has little merits. True battery experts are hard to find…universities don’t graduate enough of them, and they are in high demand.

This blog is intended to be read either as individually independent posts, or collectively as one continuous reading. The titles are summarized in the Table of Contents on the right hand side. Start with whichever topic you would like depending on your fluency level.

In the next post, we will start with the basics: What the terms really mean when one describes a battery.