Stanford Scientists Develop Safer Battery Material - InformationWeek

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1/13/2016
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Stanford Scientists Develop Safer Battery Material

To prevent itself from overheating, a new kind of polymer can temporarily disable its ability to conduct electricity.

Hot Tech Trends To Watch In 2016
Hot Tech Trends To Watch In 2016
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Researchers at Stanford University have developed a polymer that can prevent lithium ion batteries from overheating without permanently disabling them.

Lithium ion batteries have extremely high energy density, which has made them prone to combustion under adverse conditions or manufacturing defects. Lithium ion battery problems have resulted in injury and property damage, prompting to consumer product recalls, such as HP's 2011 battery recall and Sony's 2006 battery recall.

When such events occur on planes, like UPS Airlines Flight 6 in 2010, the results can be catastrophic. Consequently, the US Department of Transportation issued more stringent rules governing the transportation of lithium ion batteries in 2014, and airlines have sought further limitations.

(Image: Zheng Chen, Stanford University)

(Image: Zheng Chen, Stanford University)

However, rules governing the bulk shipment of lithium ion batteries by air fall to the International Civil Aviation Organization. In 2012, Congress passed a law that prevents the US from adopting lithium battery transportation rules more strict than the ICAO unless other lithium batteries have caused another transportation accident and casualties.

Technology may prove more effective than legislation in this instance.

In a paper published online Jan. 11 in Nature, Stanford researchers Zheng Chen, Po-Chun Hsu, Jeffrey Lopez, Yuzhang Li, John W. F. To, Nan Liu, Chao Wang, Sean C. Andrews, Jia Liu, Yi Cui, and Zhenan Bao describe the creation of a reversible thermoresponsive polymer than can shut down a battery that's beginning to overheat.

The polymer is highly conductive at room temperature, but its conductivity decreases by seven to eight orders of magnitude at a threshold temperature within one second. It is made of spiky nanoparticles of graphene-coated nickel. Under heat, the particles separate, thereby losing the ability to conduct electricity efficiently. The material thus turns itself off when it gets too hot, preventing a chain reaction known as thermal runaway that can lead to a fire or explosion.

The paper explains that, while other battery safety technologies have been developed, including separators, electrolyte additives, and polyfuse circuits, these defenses against overheating are either not reversible or have temperature limitations that constrain their utility. The new polymer regains its conductivity when the battery's temperature returns to an acceptable range. Safety thus doesn't demand battery suicide.

[Read about Huawei's new battery charging technology.]

The polymer may not cover every possible hazard scenario for lithium ion batteries. But it should reduce incidents arising from overheating or shorting. Such technology may appeal to electric carmakers like Tesla Motors, which is planning to begin producing lithium ion batteries for cars and homes on a massive scale in 2017, once its Gigafactory opens. Though electric car fires are rare, they're an unwelcome spectacle when they occur.

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Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio

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kstaron
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kstaron,
User Rank: Ninja
1/26/2016 | 11:01:26 AM
How will this affect price?
I had no idea lithium batteries were so volatile. It's good to see they are developing technology to make them safer since so many things in the world use them now. How will using this material affect the price of lithium batteries? Is the addition minimal or will the cost in production go up significantly?
Brian.Dean
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Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
1/14/2016 | 4:08:08 PM
Re: Investment Needed
The Gigafactory is a great move that can drop the price of a lithium ion battery pack by 30% using economies of scale. However, it is based on the bet that a similar technology that caters to similar applications (devices, cars, homes and the electric grid) will not be developed within the next few years. If a technology is developed, the Gigafactory will lose +30% of the value of its assets.

The only other technology that seems to be able to compete with lithium ion is the liquid metal battery from Ambri. The battery operates at extremely high temperate, causing it to require a minimum level of size and capacity (for example, the size of a 24 foot container). It makes the battery practical only for the grid and large setups.

Nevertheless, if the liquid metal battery is successful in grid environments then, it would cause the Gigafactory to lose the grid market and only sell its batteries for vehicle, home and device applications -- at an even lower price.
Whoopty
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Whoopty,
User Rank: Ninja
1/14/2016 | 8:03:11 AM
Re: Investment Needed
That's a really interesting point. Does the Gigafactory, with its push towards efficient manufacture, actually represent somewhat of a stagnation in battery technology, or is it versatile enough to be upgraded with new manufacturering processes over the years that follow its creation?

Considering some of the other materials being posited as potential alternatives for lithium too, I wonder if the Gigafactory can switch production to use those in the future? 
Brian.Dean
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Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
1/14/2016 | 6:56:11 AM
Re: Investment Needed
That is a good point. Lithium ion batteries at an affordable price are required by the world. In 2015, there was not a lot of focus on batteries mainly due to low oil prices. However, oil prices will eventually change and batteries will be required everywhere -- cars, homes and devices, etc. This makes the Gigafactory extremely important but, massive investment also introduces the risk that innovation (safer polymer) cannot be introduced into the existing capital/machine/process of a factory.
Gary_EL
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Gary_EL,
User Rank: Ninja
1/14/2016 | 2:36:14 AM
Investment Needed
This is the continuation of a trend of new lithium ion batteries (LIB) to be built using "nano" particles. This might be trouble for some of the more established LIB producers, because the way you build these new types of LIBs is radically different from the "old" type of non-nano LIBs. The whole nature of the enormously expensive factory changes, largely because each type of battery construction poses different serious environmental issues that have to dealt with in different manners.
Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
1/13/2016 | 3:00:13 PM
Better protection than the TSA?
Defective lithium ion batteries in laptops were always a much greater threat to bring down a U.S. airliner than terrorists, in my opinion. Think of the misplaced oxygen bottle incident that downed a ValueJet in the Everglades and multiple by several thousand times per day. Batteries containing nickel coated with graphene nanoparticles sound like better protection than the TSA. 
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