The 25th Anniversary of The Lithium-Ion Battery
In 1991, Sony and Asahi Kasei released the first commercial lithium-ion battery, forever changing mobile technology. As Sony say themselves "By dramatically increasing the energy density from that of conventional rechargeable batteries, Sony was able to solve issues such as the inability to use devices outdoors and the short operational life of dry cell batteries." Since then, lithium-ion batteries have powered everything from iPhones to electric cars. They're powering my laptop now as I write this blog post, and they're in the handheld devices that Kyria is working on for use with our SIMPLE product. So to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the power source that has changed the world, we thought we'd take a closer look at the history of a product that has hit the headlines recently for all the wrong reasons.
First, a quick introduction as to how lithium-ion batteries work. Lithium-ion batteries are made up of one or more power-generating compartments called cells. The electrical current reaches the cells via conductive surfaces, aluminium on one side, copper on the other. A cell contains four components: a positive electrode made of lithium metal oxide, a negative electrode made of graphite, an electrolyte which is a transport medium to help the lithium-ions that carry the battery's charge to flow freely, and a separator between the two electrodes to prevent a short circuit.
When charging the battery, the positively charged lithium-ions pass from the positive electrode, through the separator, to the negative electrode. When the battery discharges, the lithium-ions go back the other way, returning to the positive electrode. For more information on how lithium-ion batteries work, see this video by BASF.
History of the Lithium-ion Battery
1912: The first step towards lithium batteries begins, with pioneering work started by G.N. Lewis.
1970s: Non-rechargeable lithium batteries become commercially available, but lithium-ion batteries are still some way off.
1980: John Bannister Goodenough identifies and develops LixCoO2 as the cathode material of choice for the lithium-ion rechargeable battery, which is considered the single most important component of every lithium-ion battery.
1991: The first commercial lithium-ion battery is released by Sony. As well as an increase in battery sales, they also provided the solution to the problem Sony had with battery life in its video cameras. Within just a few years, almost all videos cameras had made the switch to lithium-ion batteries. Over the course of the next decade, this pattern would repeat itself, with laptops, mobile phones and power tools all making that same switch to lithium-ion batteries.
2006: Sony makes headlines for all the wrong reasons when their laptop batteries start to overheat and even catch fire. In the end, 9.6 million laptop batteries were recalled, including four million Dell laptops. The faulty batteries were due to microscopic metal particles contaminating the battery cells, causing them to short-circuit.
2007: The iPhone, powered by a lithium-ion battery, is released, changing the face of personal electronics forever. From there, smartphones took over the world – all of them powered by the same type of battery. Smartphones became the number one personal electronic device, with new models of the same product released annually. With every new release comes calls for improved battery life.
2016: Lithium-ion batteries once again hit the headlines. This time it's the Samsung's Galaxy Note 7 which is considered unsafe, with phones catching fire and exploding. Samsung eventually decided to stop selling the phone and recall every single device, after attempts at resolving the issue failed. Samsung lost billions of dollars in income as a result. At the same as this was all happening, Chinese researchers released a study claiming that lithium-ion batteries can produce dozens of dangerous gasses when overheated.
What Lies Ahead
John Bannister Goodenough, now 94, continues to work on a new super battery. His goal is to make an anode out of pure lithium or sodium metal, increasing battery energy by 60% over current lithium-ion batteries, and dramatically changing the field of rechargeable batteries, especially for electric cars. This is not a new pursuit by any means, with scientists before him trying and failing to make that illusive rechargeable pure lithium battery.
In 2015, it was announced that a completely new type of battery was being worked on. Fuji Pigment Co. Ltd claimed it "has developed a new type of aluminium-air battery rechargeable by refilling salty or normal water and having a modified structure which ensures longer battery lifetime". Israeli electric car battery company Phinergy is also developing a similar type of battery. An aluminium-air battery would drastically alter the future of electric cars, propelling them further into the mainstream car market and in the process making lithium-ion batteries obsolete in electric cars.
So, what about lithium-ion batteries? Well a new breakthrough could make the batteries both longer lasting and cheaper to manufacture, by increasing their energy density. Advances like this will ensure that lithium-ion batteries will remain with us for at least the next few years. It's impossible to say with any certainty what will be powering our mobile electronics in the future, but it's safe to say that without the lithium-ion battery, the world today would be very different.
For a more detailed look at the life and work of John Bannister Goodenough and the development of the lithium-ion battery, you can read this fascinating article at Quartz.