A look inside the world of batteries

17Jan 2019

Ted Miller, senior manager of energy storage at Ford Motor Co., recently stated:  We don’t see another way to get there without solid-state technology.” The statement is in regard to more powerful batteries for electric vehicles. Mr. Miller goes on clarifying: “What I can’t predict right now is who is going to commercialize it.”

So what is a solid state battery and why is it so difficult to commercialize? 

First, let’s clarify some misconceptions. 

A polymer battery, known as a LiPo, is a lithium-ion battery. 

A cylindrical battery, like an 18650 cell (used in the early Tesla models) is also a lithium-ion battery.

A prismatic battery is too a lithium-ion battery with a hard shell.

And so is a solid-state battery. It involves newer manufacturing processes, but it is a lithium-ion battery. 

All of these variances of lithium-ion batteries have one physical principle in common: the lithium ions contribute to storing the electrical energy.

Simplistically, a lithium-ion battery operates with lithium ions shuffling back and forth between two electrical layers: an anode and a cathode. When the ions are at the cathode, the battery is discharged. When they move to the anode, then the battery is charged. The cathode and anode are called electrodes.

The motion of the ions between these two electrodes is facilitated by an intermediate medium called electrolyte. It is a solution that is electrically conductive: it permits ions to travel through it with little impediment. One key property is called conductivity: it is a scientific measure of the ease at which ions can travel through the electrolyte. High conductivity means the ions can travel easily and quickly. Low means the opposite.

In a lithium-ion battery, the two electrodes are immersed in an electrolyte solution. Today’s batteries use a liquid or gel-like electrolyte. Battery manufacturers go to great lengths to formulate unique electrolytes for their batteries. The formulations do have an impact on many of the battery’s specifications, in particular cycle life (the number of times a battery can be charged and discharged). 

In a solid-state battery, the liquid or gel electrolyte disappears. It is instead replaced by a “solid-state” layer sandwiched between the two electrodes. “Solid-state” means this layer is not a liquid, but a physical solid. The material can consist of a ceramic, glass, or even a plastic-like polymer, or some type of mixture of all three.

So why use a solid electrolyte? There are two major reasons. First, a battery with solid electrolyte occupies a lot less space than one with liquid electrolyte. That means one can pack more energy in the same volume. Consequently, energy density — an important metric of batteries — goes up.

The second reason is safety. Liquid or gel electrolytes are more prone to catching fire than a solid electrolyte.

Traditionally, the primary challenge with solid electrolytes is poor conductivity especially at room temperature (25 °C or 77 °F). A liquid or gel electrolyte has a conductivity that is about 1,000 times better than that of solid electrolyte. In other words, solid electrolytes exhibit a far higher resistance to the flow of lithium ions. This results in several performance challenges, starting with poorer cycle life and inability to charge at fast rates. 

Some companies proposed operating their solid-state batteries at elevated temperatures (> 80 °C) to improve conductivity. But this is not practical under most use scenarios.

Therefore the quest for solid electrolyte materials continues to be a much active field of exploration and discovery. There is confidence in the industry better materials will be discovered, yet, we really can’t predict when a breakthrough will be widely adopted. 

Another challenging aspect is the surface stability and manufacturability of solid electrolytes.  Unlike liquid solutions, glass and ceramic electrolytes are not deformable. They must be assembled with the two electrodes using high external pressure, equivalent to about 1,000 atmospheres. It becomes questionable whether existing battery manufacturing factories can be retooled for this purpose. If not, the economics of solid-state batteries will undoubtedly suffer as is the present case.

In a nutshell, there is much promise in breakthrough material innovations to make solid-state batteries a reality. Yet, many challenges remain ahead. I personally do not expect to see solid-state batteries in commercial scale for several years to come. We will continue to see evolutionary progress with traditional lithium-ion batteries especially as prices continue to decline.

But in all cases, solid-state batteries are subject to the same physical principles that govern traditional lithium-ion batteries. Consequently, many of the battery management solutions developed for traditional lithium-ion batteries will evolve and continue to apply. And that is good news.

14Nov 2018

Geoffrey Fowler at the Washington Post recently published an article observing that phone battery life is getting worse. I enjoyed my conversations with Geoffrey as he researched the topic. But why is the phone battery life getting worse? Why are batteries not keeping up with the new crop of smartphones? 

Like so many things in life, it is all about energy balance. Our doctors tell us that we need to balance our calories: Calories we eat versus the calories we expand on exercise. And so the smartphone needs to balance its energy stored in the battery versus the energy it spends on use. So I distill this to two simple questions on energy demand and supply:

  1. Why is the energy demand growing with increased use of our smartphones?
  2. Why can’t we have a bigger battery to supply our growing energy needs in a smartphone?

So let’s tackle the first question by examining the sources that drive energy consumption in a smartphone. There are three parts in your smartphone that are energy hogs:

  • Your screen….ok, I am sure you all know that ;
  • Your processor….some of you probably know that too ;
  • Your radios. Not your FM radio! Radios means the cellular connection, WiFi connection, bluetooth, GPS….anything that communicates with the outside world using radio waves.

Energy consumption for each of these parts depends on the nature of the hardware and you, the user — that’s the length of time you spend on the device. 

The energy used by a screen is quite large, even with the new OLED screens. Screens are getting a bigger numbers of pixels. Each pixel consumes energy. More pixels means more energy.  Every time you turn the screen on, it’s more energy that the battery has to supply.  And that adds up rapidly. 

If you follow various chatrooms, you probably know that “screen time”, meaning the total amount of available battery time with your screen on, is probably about 6 hours, give or take – regardless of what the smartphone maker advertises about all day use or more.

Next is the processor. Fortunately, that piece of hardware used to be a major energy hog but with the new generation of processors from Qualcomm or Apple or Samsung, they have become quite efficient. How much efficient? About twice more efficient than the previous generations from a few years back. All good news, right? well, not quite.

You see, processors have become efficient indeed, but now they are running a lot more frequently than they ever did. Think about an SUV parked in the garage versus a Honda Civic used for Ubering. Which one uses more energy?

A few years ago, we used our smartphones for texting and emailing….now, we stream videos. So while these processors are efficient, they are being taxed by video and social media. Net net, they are consuming more energy from the battery. How can you tell? watch how hot your smartphone becomes when you stream videos or take 4k movies on your device. That’s your processor getting hot.

Let’s talk now about radios. That’s a growing problem for the battery, so much that carriers like AT&T and Verizon in the US, or DoCoMo in Japan are really worried about it.

On one hand, carriers love that you use more and more data…that’s how they make money. But data use means your cellular connection is on, a lot more than before. 

But you say wait, isn’t 5G cellular connection better than LTE? Think of 5G as adding more lanes on the internet superhighway as compared to LTE. It means more cars, a lot more cars, will use the highway. It means more energy will be consumed. And the battery needs to supply this energy.

The FCC is just auctioning a new range of frequencies between 24 GHz and 47 GHz for the future 5G spectrum. By comparison, LTE runs at frequencies between 0.5 GHz and 2 GHz. Why is this important? Energy use goes up with frequency. So by going to the new 5G frequency, energy consumption will grow with it, worsening the burden on the battery. In other words, the future will tax the battery even more!

Bottom line: our smartphones and our user behavior mean our appetite for more energy will continue to grow.

Now we can tackle the second question: Why can’t the device manufacturer put a bigger battery in the smartphone? 

It is simple: Bigger battery capacity means a physically bigger battery. Batteries are improving so slowly such that the only way to give users more battery capacity is by making the device larger or thicker. The recent iPhone XS, XR and XS Max show a clear trend to making larger devices that can hold larger batteries.

Will that be enough for the future? not really. Smartphone sizes can’t get any bigger. At 6 in or greater screen sizes, they are already too large to hold in one hand. They may get a little thicker but not by much. Our human hands determine the optimal physical form for a smartphone.

So what gives? I don’t know yet, but most likely, our behavior and expectations. It is quite likely that users may charge their smartphones more frequently in one day…perhaps charge twice instead of once. Some users might be happy with fewer pixels in their devices. Others may turn off their Facebook and social media apps. 

Regardless of how we adapt to the future of smartphones, the battery will continue to be the weakest link, and the one in most need for innovation.

31Oct 2018

The break I took from writing is over. I hope many of the readers took the time to read, re-read and digest the insight I shared in my earlier blogs. 

My return theme is around battery safety.  Since 2016, when the Samsung Note 7 became headline news, there have been countless reports of battery safety problems, several of them with catastrophic outcomes. As ominous as they are, these events are covered on the second page, not the first page. But that should not offer any of us any peace of mind….as the old saying goes “where there is smoke, there is fire.”

The Washington Post and other media outlets reported today that Lime, the company that is deploying thousands of electric scooters on US streets, has recalled some of its scooters because of the risk of fire in their batteries. The company, in a statement, admitted that a “manufacturing defect” may result in the “battery smoldering.” Indeed, on August 27, a Lime scooter caused a fire at the company’s Lake Tahoe facility.

Lime said that the problem is rare, with only 0.01 percent of its fleet of scooters recalled. The fact is that 0.01 percent is not a small number when it comes to battery safety. For the Samsung Note 7, that figure was less than half….yet, it was not pretty. 

The Lime scooter story is not the only one that highlights the rising safety risks of lithium-ion batteries. On June 22 of this year, Nazrin Hassan, CEO of Malaysian tech company Cradle Fund died at the hands of his smartphone which allegedly exploded in his bedroom as he slept nearby. Hassan’s brother-in-law said that he had two smartphones, a Blackberry and a Huawei. They did not know which one exploded. 

These are just two recent examples where battery safety caused or risked causing a tragic and catastrophic outcome. A web search for “lithium-ion battery fire” returns over 21 million entries. So if battery fire risks are so real and increasingly common, why are we not taking this issue more seriously?

The coming year will witness the deployment of 5G wireless network. It is an amazing new evolution in how we communicate via wireless devices. But 5G will also place a severe burden on the battery. We are already testing new generations of lithium-ion cells with terminal voltage of 4.45 V. To put in perspective, the battery voltage used to be 4.2 V only a few years ago. The increase in battery voltage has erased any safety margin that was built in the older generations of batteries. 

Electric vehicles are growing in numbers. The Tesla model 3 was ranked among the best selling sedans in North America this summer. More auto manufacturers are introducing more electric models on our streets. It is a great evolution towards green transportation. But how will we react to battery fires in vehicles?

Statistically speaking, battery events occur at the rate of about 10 to 100 failures for every one million devices (in technical lingo, 10 to 100 ppm). This may sound like a small numerical figure, but when multiplied with the billions of devices that use batteries, the number of safety problems becomes very troubling.  Yet, there are technologies that can reduce this figure by a factor of 100 (down to parts per billion or even lower). It’s time that the battery safety is taken far more seriously.

17May 2018

I googled the question “ should I charge my phone to 100”. Google returned 467 million results. From folks offering opinions on “how to properly charge” to others calling on “science”, there seems no obvious consensus in the media. Yet,  unlike views on more socially charged topics, this question ought to be a lot simpler and ought to have a clear cut answer. Let’s explore.

I start with an easy experiment. Take two batteries. Charge one of them continuously to 100% and discharge it back to zero. Repeat. Take the second battery and charge it only to 90%. Discharge it. Repeat. Now compare the two batteries.  Are there differences? the answer is yes, there is difference. The battery that was charged to 100% will age considerably faster. 

What do I mean by aging? The technical term is “cycle life.” In practice, it means that the battery charged to 100% will lose its ability to store electric charge faster than the other battery. The difference between the two batteries can vary between 100 and 300 charge cycles.

So is that good? Well, it depends on what your use is. The definition of “good” is relative.

For a smartphone, my answer is “I really don’t care.” 

For an electric vehicle, my answer is “yes, it is better, but may be only marginally.”

For energy storage batteries used by electric utilities, my answer is “yes, absolutely.”

Now, let’s dive into the details.

A smartphone battery usually lives about 500 to 800 cycles. By cycles, I mean the number of times you will be able to charge it (to 100%) and discharge it before it becomes old and useless. Some smartphone manufacturers do better than others. Apple’s and Samsung’s batteries tend to be closer to 500 cycles. Others like LG, Sony and Huawei tend to be closer to 800 cycles. 

Let’s convert cycles to real-life years. Most smartphones are charged once a day. So 800 cycles is about 2 years of use before your battery becomes old. That corresponds well with the average time for consumers to upgrade. But wait, you might say you plan to keep your smartphone for longer than 2 years. What should you do?

Naturally, one option is to spend $30 to $50 once your battery is depleted and get your phone serviced after 2 years. The other option is to charge your phone to only 80% or 90% instead of 100%. That exercise will probably get you an extra year of usage.

But that is not the only way to get more longevity. You probably don’t know that if you use a small AC adapter instead of a bigger one, you will probably get the same benefit. For this method, look for an AC adapter that is rated 5 Watts, or use the USB port in your PC to charge you handset. And that applies to iPhones or Android phones. What do you give up? You are giving up fast charging. If you charge your handset overnight, then you really don’t care.

A self-serving plug for Qnovo: Smartphones with intelligent charging algorithms will take care of longevity issues for you so you really don’t have to think about this question and its answer. 

Now, let’s talk about electric vehicles. Should you top off the battery in your electric vehicle (EV)? First, it is important to know that EV manufacturers (from GM and Tesla to Nissan and VW) already limit the charging of the car battery to somewhere near 80%. The 100% that you read in your dashboard is actually 80% of the what the battery is rated for. That figure usually is sufficient to meet the warranty terms of the vehicle, often 100,000 miles or 10 years.

If you are leasing your car, then you really don’t care. Your lease will expire long before any meaningful battery aging sets in. But if you purchased your EV and plan to keep for a long time, then you may have an incentive to not top off your battery.

But wait, that is also not the only way to get more longevity. Every time you use a supercharger or DC fast-charging, you are causing serious damage to the battery. So instead, try to avoid using superchargers. This is particularly acute for the Panasonic batteries used in some of the Tesla models.

Lastly, I will add a few final words about electric utilities and batteries they use. These are complex systems that are slated to operate for at least 20 years! They are also very expensive assets that cost millions of dollars. So longevity is a serious matter. Naturally, users have no say in how these batteries get charged. Utilities and battery manufacturers do watch over these batteries so that they can last for a long time.

18Apr 2018

5G is the evolution of the present LTE wireless network that carriers are beginning to deploy later this year. 

Yes, it will be a Global network, with every geography around the globe utilizing it at some point in the future. 

Yes, it will have Great capabilities, from streaming videos with very little if any delay, and seamlessly handle a large number of connected devices such as sensors.

Yes, it will Galvanize a new set of applications that may have not even been conceived of yet. Just imagine what the previous generations did to promote social networks, video, and other such uses that were not possible a decade ago.

Yes, it will have Grave consequences on the battery. The demands that the network places on the devices, in particular, the handset or smartphone, are significant. Early results show that the power consumption in the chipsets that run smartphones are higher by as much as 25 to 50%.

Yes, the effort will be Grueling to improve the battery’s performance and safety.

Much has been written about 5G and its planned deployment. Unfortunately, the coverage tends to be centered on the benefits of 5G and neglects the impact on the battery. If anything, it can be misleading in promising a longer battery life, contrary to the present data.

The figure below (courtesy of Verizon Wireless) highlights three main thrusts of 5G. At the low frequency bands, typically between 600 MHz and 900 MHz, 5G will continue to provide mobile broadband, similar to 4G / LTE connectivity on your smartphone or handset device. At these frequencies, the network will be limited by physics to maximum data bandwidths on the order of a few hundred Mbits per second.

 

 

5G introduces a new set of frequency bands that will go as high as 6 GHz where data rates can reach one or more Gbits per second. These higher data rates will provide new services that have much faster connectivity, or as Verizon Wireless calls it, enhanced Mobile Broadband.

The last frequency tranche is above 24 GHz where data rates can now reach 10 Gbits per second or higher.

There are three key observations to make here in relation to the battery. 

First, there will be a substantial increase in the amount of data traffic with 5G. Each bit of data consumes a small amount of battery charge. While electronics are getting incrementally more efficient in power usage, this efficiency is no match to the massive increase in data traffic, anticipated to be 1,000X higher than present-day volumes. This, unquestionably, will be the first strain on the battery requirements necessitating higher battery capacities and energy densities.

The second observation is more subtle but potentially more potent. The 5G networks provide new applications that are time and mission critical with a very low latency. In other words, the time that it takes the data to make a round trip from one device to another, and back to the original device (what engineers call latency) will decrease from a present-day value near 100 ms (milliseconds) to less than 10 ms. 

Who cares, you might ask! Imagine two autonomous vehicles on the highway traveling at 65 mph (105 km/h). In 10 ms, the vehicle would have traveled nearly one foot (about 30 cm). In 100 ms, the distance is ten feet or nearly three meters. This is the difference between avoiding a collision or a potentially tragic accident. 

But low latency means that the apps processor (or CPU) will be getting far less idle time that it does today. You see, battery-operated devices rely on the electronics being asleep (not drawing power) for a good portion of the time in order to save battery. So when the processor needs to be awake a longer duration of time, it will have a substantial impact on power consumption, and consequently the battery. 

The third and last observation relates to the new higher frequency bands at 3 – 6 GHz and greater than 24 GHz. Physics tell us that power consumption increases linearly with frequency. So just by going from the 900 MHz band to the 6 GHz band will incur up to 5X increase in power. 

Additionally, waves at these frequencies do not travel very far and tend to be greatly attenuated by physical obstacles like buildings and trees. This limited propagation requires that network carriers (like AT&T and Verizon) install far more antennas more densely. This large capital outlay will most certainly take time. Consequently, handsets operating at higher frequencies will most certainly need to increase the transmission power to overcome the attenuation. Once again, the battery suffers.

Of course, it is fair to expect that the power utilization in 5G networks will improve over time and manufacturers will derive improvements in efficiency. However, it is highly unlikely that 5G power requirements and impact on battery will be similar to those of 4G/LTE. The demands on the battery are certain to increase and put more constraints on battery performance and safety.