A look inside the world of batteries

21Dec 2016

This year has been one of heightened awareness regarding battery safety. Smartphone manufacturers now realize that battery fires are real and recalls from the field are enormously expensive. Along with this education comes a deeper realization that battery quality and the presence of hidden defects are very serious matters.

Today’s post sheds light onto the challenges of battery manufacturing and ensuing defects. These discussions are not useless academic conversations. We see manufacturing defects in batteries especially those sourced from Chinese manufacturers. We observe them more frequently in batteries with high energy density where manufacturing tolerances are challenging.

We analyzed recently a family of batteries from a China-based manufacturer that shall remain unnamed. The battery in question is in serious consideration for a possible release in a smartphone in 2017. Our analysis revealed that the battery was potentially unsafe exhibiting an elevated risk of lithium metal plating; this can lead to electrical shorts. A post-mortem dissection showed regular horizontal bands of lithium metal deposited on the surface of the graphite anode. The scary part was that this battery was quite new….it had only been used for a few days with less than 10 charge-discharge cycles. So what’s happening?

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Let’s go back to basics. This previous post recaps the basic structure of a lithium-ion battery. There are two electrodes that face each other with a porous insulating layer in between meant to keep these two electrodes apart. The anode has a coating of carbon (in the form of graphite) on top of a copper layer. The cathode has a coating of a specialized metal oxide, often lithium cobalt oxide abbreviated as LCO.

The design of the battery dictates that the amount of graphite compared to the amount of LCO must be balanced. This balance, which in technical jargon is called the A to C ratio, requires that there is a small amount of excess graphite relative to LCO. Usually, in a good design, there is about 5% more graphite material than LCO.

If, for some reason, there is less graphite than there is LCO, then this creates a condition where excess lithium ions cannot be absorbed by the anode, leading to lithium metal forming on the surface of the graphite….this is called lithium metal plating. As I said before and I will say again, lithium metal is a NO NO. It is a risk for electrical shorts and it is highly flammable in the presence of water vapor or oxygen; both are precursors for poor safety.

In a good manufacturing environment, the graphite anode layer is uniform in thickness and density. In other words, anywhere along the large anode surface, the graphite maintains the proper balance with the cathode layer that sits on the opposite side.

But now imagine a scenario where the manufacturing is not well controlled such that regions of the anode (or the cathode) are not uniform — for example the thickness or the density of graphite particles vary. Now remember that this need not be a huge variation: only a mere 5% change in particle density is sufficient to create an imbalance between the two electrodes. That is precisely what happened in this Chinese battery. The figure below illustrates how these bands are related to the defects in the electrode layer.

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When the manufacturer coated the anode and cathode layers, their machines created small ripples in the density and/or thickness. So when the battery was first powered, lithium metal began to form…and that was what we observed in our laboratory.

So now you will say, “Well, that was a cheap Chinese factory. Surely the more reputable incumbents do not have this problem.” True, but that is not good enough. The economics are not in their favor. I will explain.

The tolerances of manufacturing high-energy-density batteries are becoming very tight. This drives the need for newer state-of-the-art manufacturing equipment, such as machines that can coat the electrodes more uniformly. The cost of equipping new manufacturing facilities therefore increases, driving up the cost of manufacturing these batteries.

Compare this to manufacturing silicon integrated circuits. Moore’s Law makes it possible to spend billions of dollars on manufacturing facilities and yet amortize this cost over a rapidly increasing number of electronic chips. The result is the amortized cost per chip actually goes down.  Sadly, there is no equivalent of Moore’s Law in batteries. More expensive manufacturing means more expensive batteries, and consequently, a loss of market share to the low-cost Chinese battery manufacturers. It is no surprise therefore that the reputable incumbents in lithium-ion batteries like LG Chem and Samsung SDI have their sights set on the electric vehicle market where they get to build the power train, not just a battery. This is a big invitation to low-cost  and low-quality battery makers in China to continue expanding.

The combination of increasing energy density along with the enormous pricing pressures from second-tier battery manufacturers in China are invariably leading to increased incidence of manufacturing defects — and that is something smartphone and device OEMs ought to be thinking about very seriously.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.