The Lithium-Ion Battery still not Ready to Power a Practical All-Electric Car

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 14th, 2013

Week in Review

If you’ve been waiting with bated breath for the all-electric car with a real useful range you can start breathing again.  For the one technology that promised the most is having a setback.  Because of its propensity to burst into flames (see FAA sees lessons from Boeing 787 battery woes by Andrea Shalal-Esa posted 4/13/2013 on Reuters).

Lightweight and power-packed, lithium-ion batteries are used to power electric cars, laptops, tablets, cell phones, satellites. They are even used on the Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter jet. The number of cells manufactured globally has leapt to 4.4 billion in 2012 from 800 million in 2002.

But safety remains an issue. The battery industry still does not have a foolproof way to predict or prevent internal short circuits in the cells, according to experts who spoke about the issue this week at the National Transportation Safety Board forum…

In the Cessna case, the FAA required that lithium-ion batteries in the Cessna Citation Model 525C, be replaced with nickel-cadmium or lead-acid batteries, older technologies that are not as volatile. Airbus officials have said they think lithium-ion batteries can eventually be made safe, but that the company was shifting to nickel-cadmium for its forthcoming A350 jet, because it doesn’t want to risk a delay in bringing the plane to market.

If you’re buying a replacement lithium-ion battery don’t try to save a buck.  Just bite the bullet and buy the brand the manufacturer recommends.  So it doesn’t burst into flames.

If these are not safe to go onto airplanes without some extraordinary precautions just imagine that all-electric car you plug in overnight in your attached garage.  There have been a couple of garage fires.  Not many.  But that’s probably more to do with the fact no one is buying these all-electric cars.   Why are these so dangerous?  Because they contain a lot of energy in a very small package.  Sort of like our early steam engines where a lot of steam pressure was in a very small package.  And when something didn’t go right like a pressure relief valve sticking they blew up in a massive explosion.

This is the risk when you try to get a lot of energy out of small packages.  They can do a lot of work for us.  But if something goes wrong something really bad can happen.  And until we can get past this point in the development of the lithium-ion battery we won’t have a practical all-electric car any time soon.

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Boeing’s 787 Battery Solution illustrates why the All-Electric Car remains more of a Novelty than a Legitimate Car

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 7th, 2013

Week in Review

The problem with the all-electric car is the battery.  To get a decent range requires a large battery.  But a large battery adds weight.  The heavier the car is the more battery power it takes to drive the car.  Which, of course, decreases the range.  So the only solution to this problem is to come up with a better battery.  One that is smaller and lighter that can charge quickly and provide great range.  Currently, that battery is the lithium-ion battery.  The same technology Boeing used on their new 787 Dreamliner.  Those same planes that showed the drawbacks of getting more energy out of a smaller and lighter battery.  They generate a lot of heat.  And can burst into flames (see Boeing has “good” Dreamliner battery plan fix: official by Doug Palmer and Alwyn Scott posted 4/5/2013 on Reuters).

Boeing Co (BA.N) has a “good plan” to fix the battery problem that has grounded its 787 Dreamliner jets, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said on Friday as the company prepared for a test flight to check the battery system revamp…

It’s still unknown what caused the two batteries to overheat, and the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating. Boeing came up with measures it says make the battery safe. It put more insulation in the battery, encased the battery in a steel box, changed the circuitry of the battery charger and added a titanium venting tube to expel heat and fumes outside the plane.

This is a good fix for an airplane.  For if there is a fire in the battery compartment you want to vent the heat and fumes outside of the airplane.  So the airplane doesn’t catch on fire.  Of course, this solution is not a very good one for an all-electric car that parks in attached garage plugged in overnight.  For there will be no freezing air blowing across that titanium tube like a plane flying at 40,000 feet.  That intense heat just may start the car on fire.  Or the garage.

To increase sales of the all-electric car they need to increase the range.  Even if you’re driving at night in winter with the heater and lights on.  And get stuck in stop and go traffic that adds an hour to your drive-time home.  But to do this you need to put more energy into a smaller package.  Which is often not the safest thing to do.  As Boeing learned.  So until they can come up with a battery that can give people the range to make it home safely without the car (or garage) catching on fire the all-electric car will remain more of a novelty than a legitimate car.

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Boeing’s Problems with Lithium-Ion Batteries illustrates the problem of the All-Electric Car

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 24th, 2013

Week in Review

The greatest cost of all airlines is fuel.  Airplanes that burn less fuel make airlines more money.  And help airlines go from losing money to making a profit.  Aircraft are complex machines.  Full of high-tech stuff.  But one of the best ways to burn less fuel is not all that high-tech.  You just make planes lighter.  One of the ways of doing that, though, is very high-tech.  The new lithium-ion battery.  Which packs a whole lot of energy in a tiny package.  Allowing Boeing to make their Dreamliner just a little bit lighter.  Allowing it to burn less fuel (see Japan Finds Swelling in Second Boeing 787 Battery by Mari Saito, REUTERS, posted 2/19/2013 on the New York Times).

Cells in a second lithium-ion battery on a Boeing Co 787 Dreamliner forced to make an emergency landing in Japan last month showed slight swelling, a Japan Transport Safety Board (JTSB) official said on Tuesday.

The jet, flown by All Nippon Airways Co, was forced to make the landing after its main battery failed…

The U.S. Federal Aviation Authority grounded all 50 Boeing Dreamliners in commercial service on January 16 after the incidents with the two Japanese owned 787 jets.

The groundings have cost airlines tens of millions of dollars, with no solution yet in sight.

Boeing rival Airbus said last week it had abandoned plans to use lithium-ion batteries in its next passenger jet, the A350, in favor of traditional nickel-cadmium batteries.

Lighter and more powerful than conventional batteries, lithium-ion power packs have been in consumer products such as phones and laptops for years but are relatively new in industrial applications, including back-up batteries for electrical systems in jets.

As it turns out it can be a little risky packing a whole lot of energy into tiny packages.  It may make batteries lighter.  But it’s like putting a tiger in a box.  If it isn’t a good box it’s not going to restrain that tiger.  And that’s what sort of has been happening with lithium-ion batteries.  People who bought discount replacement cell phone batteries saw those cheap knockoffs burst into flames.

Lithium-ion batteries have a tendency to burst into flames if they are overcharged.  This is the risk of using concentrated energy.  It’s why they grounded the entire fleet of Boeing Dreamliners.  And it’s why the all-electric car is not practical.  The one battery that gives it a useful range can be a little temperamental.  Like a tiger in a box.

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Lithium Ion Battery Fires ground entire Boeing 787 Dreamliner Fleet

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 20th, 2013

Week in Review

The big drawback for electric cars is range.  For after a battery powers all the electrical systems (heating, cooling, lights, etc.) what charge is left is for going places.  And if that place is more than 30 miles away few people will feel comfortable taking a chance that they will have enough charge to drive there and back.  Unless that trip is to work where the car can recharge for 8-9 hours while at work.

Range anxiety is the greatest drawback to an all-electric car.  For if you run out of charge there is only one way to get your car home.  With a tow truck.  For you can’t walk to a gas station and ask for a can of charge to pour into the battery.  Charging needs an electrical source.  And time.  So the Holy Grail of the all-electric car industry is a battery that can hold a lot of charge.  But is small and does not weigh a lot.  And can be recharged in a very short time.  Right now that Holy Grail is the lithium ion battery.

But there is a cost for this Holy Grail.  There is a lot of chemistry to do this.  Chemistry that can produce a lot of heat.  Catch fire.  And explode.  Which has happened in some electric cars.  As well as in some airplanes (see Bad Batteries Seen as Best Case for 787 Overcoming Past by Susanna Ray, Alan Levin & Peter Robison posted 1/18/2013 on Bloomberg).

Other aircraft bleed air off the engines for a pneumatic system to power a variety of critical functions, such as air conditioning. That diverts power from the engines that they could otherwise use for thrust, and means they use more fuel.

With an electrical system for the jet’s other needs, the engines become much more efficient. The 787 uses five times as much electricity as the 767, enough to power 400 homes. To jump- start a so-called auxiliary power unit that’s used on the ground and as a backup in case all the plane’s generators failed, Boeing decided on a lithium-ion battery because it holds more energy and can be quickly recharged, Mike Sinnett, the 787 project engineer, said in a briefing last week.

Those capabilities also make lithium-ion cells more flammable than other battery technology, and they can create sparks and high heat if not properly discharged. Chemicals inside the battery are also flammable and hard to extinguish because they contain their own source of oxygen, Sinnett said.

A couple of battery fires have grounded all Boeing 787 Dreamliners.  The last commercial jetliner to receive such an order was the McDonnell Douglas DC-10.   Which happened after an engine came off while taking off at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.  Due to a maintenance error in changing out the left engine and pylon.  Causing the plane to crash.  After investigation they found the slats did not mechanically latch into position.  When the engine ripped out the hydraulic lines the slats retracted and the wing stalled.  The plane slowly banked to the left and fell out of the sky.  Killing all on board.  The DC-10s were grounded worldwide until the hydraulic lines were better protected and the slats latched to prevent them from retracting on the loss of hydraulic pressure.  Now no 787s have crashed.  But few things are deadlier to an airborne aircraft than a fire.  For there is nothing pilots can do other than to continue to fly towards an airport while the plane is consumed by fire.

Stored chemical oxygen generators in the hull of ValuJet Flight 592 were stored improperly.  They were activated.  Producing oxygen by a chemical reaction that generated a lot of heat.  The heat started a fire and the oxygen fueled it.  Once the pilots were aware of the fire they turned to the nearest airport.  But the fire consumed the airplane and fell out of the sky before they could land.  Killing all on board.

Fire on an airplane rarely ends well.  Which explains the grounding of the entire 787 fleet.  Because these lithium ion batteries run very hot when they make electricity.  And they can generate oxygen.  Which is the last thing you want on an aircraft.  However, both Airbus and Boeing are using them because they are the Holy Grail of batteries.  They’re small and light and can hold a lot of charge and nothing can recharge as fast as they can.  Which is why they are the choice for all-electric cars.  Even though some of them have caught fire.  This is the tradeoff.  Smaller and lighter batteries are smaller and lighter for a reason.  Because of powerful chemical reactions that can go wrong.  So to be safe you should park your electric car outside and away from your house.  In case it catches fire you’ll only lose your car.  And not your garage or house.  Or you can stick to the gasoline-powered car and not worry about battery fires.  Or range.

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Lead–Acid Battery, Nickel–Cadmium Battery (NiCd), Nickel–Metal Hydride Battery (NiMH) and Lithium-Ion Battery

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 9th, 2013

Technology 101

The Chemical Reactions in a Zinc-Carbon Battery are One Way

A battery uses chemistry to make electricity.  An electric current is a flow of electrons that can do useful work.  The chemical reaction inside a battery creates that flow of electrons to produce an electric current.  In a common zinc-carbon battery, for example, a zinc electrode dissolves in an electrolyte.  As it does atoms release free electrons and become positive ions (cations) in the electrolyte.  Giving this solution a positive charge.  At the same time a carbon electrode is in a different electrolyte solution.  One filled with negative ions (anions).  Giving this solution a negative charge.

With no electrical load attached to the battery these electrodes and electrolytes are in equilibrium.  When we attach an external circuit across the battery terminals they provide a pathway for those free electrons.  As the free electrons travel through the external circuit the cations and anions travel through a porous membrane from one electrolyte to the other.  The positive cations (atoms with room for an additional electron) flow towards the carbon electrode.  And combine with the free electrons on the surface of the carbon electrode and become electrically neutral.

We can stop this chemical reaction.  Say by turning a flashlight or a portable radio off.  But we can’t reverse it.  This is a one-way chemical reaction that eventually dissolves away the anode.  A Zinc-carbon battery is inexpensive.  The amount of battery life we get out of it more than offsets the price.  And they’re easy to change.  But sometimes an application calls for a battery that isn’t easy to change.  Like a car battery.  Imagine having to change that a few times a year when it ran down.  No, that would be far too inconvenient.  Difficult.  And costly.  So we don’t.  Instead, we recharge car batteries.

The Chemical Reactions in a Lead-Acid Battery are Reversible allowing these batteries to be Recharged

A car battery is a lead-acid battery.  Each cell of a lead-acid battery has a positive electrode (i.e., plate) of lead dioxide.  A negative electrode of lead.  And an electrolyte of a sulfuric acid-water solution containing sulfate ions.  The lead chemically reacts with the sulfate ions to produce lead sulfate on the negative electrode while producing positive ions.  The lead dioxide chemically reacts with the sulfuric acid to produce lead sulfate on the positive electrode while giving up free electrons.

When we attach an external circuit to the battery (such as starting a car) the free electrons leave the positive electrode, travel through the external circuit and return to the battery.  Where they combine with those positive ions.  Lead sulfate forms on both electrodes.  These reactions consume the sulfuric acid in the electrolyte and leave mostly water behind.  Reducing the available charge in the battery.  But unlike zinc-carbon batteries these chemical reactions are reversible.  After a car starts, for example, the alternator provides the electric power needs of the car.  While applying a charging voltage to the battery.  This voltage will ionize the water in the battery which will break down the lead sulfate.  Deposit lead oxide back onto the positive electrode.  And deposit lead back onto the negative electrode.  Giving you a charged battery for the next time you need to start your engine.

A lead acid battery can provide a strong current to spin an internal combustion engine.  Which takes a lot of energy to fight the compression of the pistons.  And it can work in some very cold temperatures.  But it’s big and heavy.  And works best in things bigger and heavier.  Like cars.  Trucks.  Trains.  And ships.  But they don’t work well in things that are smaller and lighter.  Like cordless power tools.  Cell phones.  And laptop computers.  Things where battery weight is an important issue.  Requiring an alternative to the lead-acid battery.  One of the earliest rechargeable battery alternatives was the nickel–cadmium battery.  Or NiCad battery.

The Chemical Reactions produce Heat in a Lithium Ion Battery and can Catch Fire or Explode

The nickel–cadmium battery works like every other battery.  With chemical reactions that produce electrons.  And chemical reactions that consumes electrons.  The NiCad battery uses nickel (III) oxide-hydroxide for the positive electrode.  Cadmium for the negative electrode.  And potassium hydroxide as the electrolyte.  A NiCad battery may look like a zinc-carbon battery.  But the electrodes are different.  Instead of the zinc canister and a carbon rod the electrodes in a NiCad battery are long strips.  One is placed onto the other with a separator in between.  Then rolled up like a jelly-roll.

NiCad batteries have a memory effect.  If they were recharged without being fully discharged the battery ‘remembers’ the amount of charge it took to recharge the partially discharged battery.  So even if you fully discharged the battery it would only recharge it as if you partially discharged it.  Reducing the battery capacity over time.  The nickel–metal hydride battery (NiMH) eliminated this problem.  And improved on the NiCad.  Giving it 2-3 times the capacity of a NiCad battery.  NiCad and NiMH batteries are very similar.  They use the same positive electrode.  But instead of the highly toxic cadmium NiMH batteries use a mixture of a rare earth metal mixed with another metal.

Today battery technology has evolved into the lithium-ion battery.  Where the positive electrode is a compound containing lithium.  The negative electrode is typically graphite.  The electrolyte is a lithium salt.  Lithium ions travel between the electrodes through the electrolyte.  And electrons flow between the electrodes via the external circuit.  They have a greater capacity, no memory effect and hold their charge for a long time when not being used.  Making the lithium ion battery ideal for cell phones and other consumer electronics.  These chemical reactions produce heat, though.  And can catch fire or explode.  Trying to prevent this from happening increases their manufacturing costs, making them expensive batteries.  So expensive that people will buy cheaper generic brands.  Cheaper because they are not built to the same quality standards of the more expensive ones.  And are more prone to catching fire or exploding.

Something to think about when you feel the heat of your cell phone after a long conversation.  Only use a battery recommended by the manufacturer.  Even if it costs a small fortune.  It may be expensive.  But probably not as expensive as your monthly airtime charges.  So don’t skimp when it comes to lithium ion batteries.  For those cheap ones do have a tendency to catch fire.  Or explode.

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A Cell Phone Lithium Ion Battery Overheats and Catches Fire on an Airplane

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 3rd, 2011

Week in Review

It looks like the Chevy Volt isn’t the only thing with a lithium ion battery catching fire (see iPhone 4 Explodes Midflight on Australian Airline by Lauren Effron posted 11/28/2011 on Good Morning America/Yahoo! News).

While on Australian flight Regional Express ZL319 Friday, a passenger’s iPhone 4 (not the iPhone 4S, which is Apple’s latest model) suddenly started “emitting a significant amount of dense smoke, accompanied by a red glow,” according to a Regional Express statement.

The plane, which was flying from Lismore to Sydney, was in the midst of landing when the incident occured. “In accordance with company standard safety procedures, the flight attendant carried out recovery actions immediately, and the red glow was extinguished successfully,” according to Regional Express’ statement…

Exploding Apple products are rare, but explosions have happened in the past, mostly related to the devices’ lithium ion batteries overheating.

The European Union launched an investigation in 2009 after multiple instances of iPhones and iPod Touches exploding or catching fire midflight were reported in the U.K., Holland, France and Sweden.

Apple also  recalled its first-generation of iPod nanos sold between September 2005 and December 2006 because the battery would overheat and “pose a safety risk,” according to the company’s website.

These fires are rather rare.  And they usually happen when the device is being used.  So the smoking and bursting into flames is readily detectable.  Not so with a car parked in a garage.  And these electric cars have far bigger batteries than our cell phones.  Which means there are a whole lot more chemicals to overheat and burst into flames.

A recent Chevy Volt fire has been blamed on the car battery cooling system.  Probably just a minor defect and nothing to really worry about.  At least not as much as wondering whether or not if you have enough of a charge to make it back home.  But it should be noted that cell phones don’t have cooling systems.  Apparently because they’re not as much a fire hazard as the lithium ion batteries in these electric cars.

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