Samsung Galaxy Note 7: Company slammed for fires, Lithium-ion batteries escape blame

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Updated: October 24, 2016 7:22:41 AM

Being a scarce resource, lithium may only be able to stay for a little longer

Designed from porous copper structure by a start-up Preito battery from the Colorado State University, these foam cells can also be a solution for the explosive capacity of Li-ion batteries. (Reuters)Designed from porous copper structure by a start-up Preito battery from the Colorado State University, these foam cells can also be a solution for the explosive capacity of Li-ion batteries. (Reuters)

We all face battery issues, and quite recently Samsung faced one too. While our battery woes end with us charging phones, Samsung’s debacle has led to the company discontinuing its product line and might end up costing the South Korean giant $3.1 billion. Although the incident of Galaxy Note 7 catching fire has led to the demise of the phone with the company being blamed for the fiasco, Lithium-ion batteries, which are the main cause of explosions have escaped the issue without an iota of blame.

First discovered in 1817 by Johan August Arfwedson, Lithium was not used as a battery till the 1970’s. Failed experiments with the compound finally led to the development of a rechargeable battery that was low-cost and had high energy density. Since their commercialisation by Sony in 1991, these batteries have come to dominate every aspect of energy of the 21st century. Li-ion batteries have become the power source of phones, wearables, space rockets and electric cars. Although each phase of development has led to smaller and smaller battery packs with more power, they have not been able to outpace consumer demand of slimmer and more powerful electronics. Samsung’s fiasco was a result of this demand and while Samsung may be the first, other companies are expected to face the same problem going forward.

The last three decades have led to the development of energy alternatives to Li-ion, but none have emerged as a viable alternative due to cost or energy density considerations. But with advances in technology and new electrodes being discovered, there are a few that may be able to provide a safe and viable solution to battery problems.

Aluminium-graphite cell

Much similar to lithium-ion batteries in composition, the dual ion batteries of aluminium and graphite can be a viable contender to the lithium-ion pack. Although research on these batteries have been going on for long, to provide a low-cost alternative to lithium, scientists haven’t been able to solve the discharge and life-cycle problem—the batteries could neither last for long nor could they go on through longer cycles. But scientists at the Stanford university last year found a solution to this problem by using aluminium chloride. The batteries do last longer, but they are still bulky which would pose a challenge for consumer electronics.

Foam cell

Designed from porous copper structure by a start-up Preito battery from the Colorado State University, these foam cells can also be a solution for the explosive capacity of Li-ion batteries. The battery which is made out of copper substrate looks more like a foam, but has more power, charges faster, lasts longer—twice more than conventional batter—and costs less. The battery being in a 3D form is made up of layers of copper with current-conducting fluid. Moreover, they can power small wearables which are being touted as the future of mobility.

Sodium-ion batteries

But the best solution to lithium woes can be salt. Batteries made from sodium-ion have a better chance of replacing lithium packs than any other cells. While sodium is more abundant, cheaper and non-toxic than lithium, the only problem with these cells is that they take a long time to recharge and have a low discharge rate. Solutions to this problem have led to reduced capacity for these cells. But a paper published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, shows that scientists may have overcome this problem to some extent. With new electrodes being discovered organic Na-ion batteries can be more viable than Li-ion cells.

But the application of lithium is not just restricted to Li-ion cells. Scientists have been working on creating solid state batteries using lithium which can be better as it is the liquid which is the main cause for explosions. Besides, there has been research in creating Lithium-air batteries which are breathable cells that cost and weigh less than the existing Li-ion batteries. These batteries can also be built to be flexible which can solve the problem for flexible electronics and next generation wearables. There is also the case of Lithium being used with sulphur to create a high energy density compound. Sony may be developing these compounds for commercial revolution and may bring about the second revolution in the lithium battery space.

Basically, research on lithium variants has a higher chance of being successful than other alternatives. With researchers like MIT working on yolk technology which can help preserve more power and provide better charge time, there is a more of a chance that lithium may stay longer in the market than expected. With growing technology use and consumers demanding more products, it will ultimately have to pave the way for other materials. Though the focus of research has been creating more consumer electronics in the past three decades, the Samsung experience may bring a shift towards innovations that support the back-end.

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