The lithium ion battery

Entry Notes

Posted: 01172007
Author: Prof. Ilga Jurkelo
Category: Batteries

Pioneer work with the lithium battery began in 1912 under G.N. Lewis but it was not until the early 1970s that the first non-rechargeable lithium batteries became commercially available. Attempts to develop rechargeable lithium batteries followed in the 1980s, but failed due to safety problems.

Lithium is the lightest of all metals, has the greatest electrochemical potential and provides the largest energy density per weight. Rechargeable batteries using lithium metal anodes (negative electrodes) are capable of providing both high voltage and excellent capacity, resulting in an extraordinary high energy density.

After much research on rechargeable lithium batteries during the 1980s, it was found that cycling causes changes on the lithium electrode. These transformations, which are part of normal wear and tear, reduce the thermal stability, causing potential thermal runaway conditions. When this occurs, the cell temperature quickly approaches the melting point of lithium, resulting in a violent reaction called ‘venting with flame’. A large quantity of rechargeable lithium batteries sent to Japan had to be recalled in 1991 after a battery in a mobile phone released flaming gases and inflicted burns to a person’s face.

Because of the inherent instability of lithium metal, especially during charging, research shifted to a non-metallic lithium battery using lithium ions. Although slightly lower in energy density than lithium metal, the Li-ion is safe, provided certain precautions are met when charging and discharging. In 1991, the Sony Corporation commercialized the first Li-ion battery. Other manufacturers followed suit. Today, the Li-ion is the fastest growing and most promising battery chemistry.

The energy density of the Li-ion is typically twice that of the standard NiCd. Improvements in electrode active materials have the potential of increasing the energy density close to three times that of the NiCd. In addition to high capacity, the load characteristics are reasonably good and behave similarly to the NiCd in terms of discharge characteristics (similar shape of discharge profile, but different voltage). The flat discharge curve offers effective utilization of the stored power in a desirable voltage spectrum.

The Li-ion is a low maintenance battery, an advantage that most other chemistries cannot claim. There is no memory and no scheduled cycling is required to prolong the battery’s life. In addition, the self-discharge is less than half compared to NiCd and NiMH, making the Li-ion well suited for modern fuel gauge applications.

The high cell voltage of Li-ion allows the manufacture of battery packs consisting of only one cell. Many of today’s mobile phones run on a single cell, an advantage that simplifies battery design. Supply voltages of electronic applications have been heading lower, which in turn requires fewer cells per battery pack. To maintain the same power, however, higher currents are needed. This emphasizes the importance of very low cell resistance to allow unrestricted flow of current.

Chemistry variations — During recent years, several types of Li-ion batteries have emerged with only one thing in common — the catchword 'lithium'. Although strikingly similar on the outside, lithium-based batteries can vary widely.

Sony’s original version of the Li-ion used coke, a product of coal, as the negative electrode. Since 1997, most Li-ions (including Sony’s) have shifted to graphite. This electrode provides a flatter discharge voltage curve than coke and offers a sharp knee bend at the end of discharge. As a result, the graphite system delivers the stored energy by only having to discharge to 3.0V/cell, whereas the coke version must be discharged to 2.5V to get similar runtime. In addition, the graphite version is capable of delivering a higher discharge current and remains cooler during charge and discharge than the coke version.

For the positive electrode, two distinct chemistries have emerged. They are cobalt and spinel (also known as manganese). Whereas cobalt has been in use longer, spinel is inherently safer and more forgiving if abused. Small prismatic spinel packs for mobile phones may only include a thermal fuse and temperature sensor. In addition to cost savings on a simplified protection circuit, the raw material cost for spinel is lower than that of cobalt. As a trade-off, spinel offers a slightly lower energy density, suffers capacity loss at temperatures above 40°C and ages quicker than cobalt.

Based on present generation 18650 cells. The energy density tends to be lower for prismatic cells.

The choice of metals, chemicals and additives help balance the critical trade-off between high energy density, long storage time, extended cycle life and safety. High energy densities can be achieved with relative ease. For example, adding more nickel in lieu of cobalt increases the ampere/hours rating and lowers the manufacturing cost but makes the cell less safe. While a start-up company may focus on high energy density to gain quick market acceptance, safety, cycle life and storage capabilities may be compromised. Reputable manufacturers, such as Sony, Panasonic, Sanyo, Moli Energy and Polystor place high importance on safety. Regulatory authorities assure that only safe batteries are sold to the public.

Li-ion cells cause less harm when disposed of than lead or cadmium-based batteries. Among the Li-ion family, the spinel is the friendliest in terms of disposal.

Despite its overall advantages, Li-ion also has its drawbacks. It is fragile and requires a protection circuit to maintain safe operation. Built into each pack, the protection circuit limits the peak voltage of each cell during charge and prevents the cell voltage from dropping too low on discharge. In addition, the maximum charge and discharge current is limited and the cell temperature is monitored to prevent temperature extremes. With these precautions in place, the possibility of metallic lithium plating occurring due to overcharge is virtually eliminated.

Aging is a concern with most Li-ion batteries. For unknown reasons, battery manufacturers are silent about this issue. Some capacity deterioration is noticeable after one year, whether the battery is in use or not. Over two or perhaps three years, the battery frequently fails. It should be mentioned that other chemistries also have age-related degenerative effects. This is especially true for the NiMH if exposed to high ambient temperatures.

Storing the battery in a cool place slows down the aging process of the Li-ion (and other chemistries). Manufacturers recommend storage temperatures of 15°C (59°F). In addition, the battery should only be partially charged when in storage.

Extended storage is not recommended for Li-ion batteries. Instead, packs should be rotated. The buyer should be aware of the manufacturing date when purchasing a replacement Li-ion battery. Unfortunately, this information is often encoded in an encrypted serial number and is only available to the manufacturer.

Manufacturers are constantly improving the chemistry of the Li-ion battery. Every six months, a new and enhanced chemical combination is tried. With such rapid progress, it becomes difficult to assess how well the revised battery ages and how it performs after long-term storage.

Cost analysis — The most economical lithium-based battery in terms of cost-to-energy ratio is a pack using the cylindrical 18650 cell. This battery is somewhat bulky but suitable for portable applications such as mobile computing. If a slimmer pack is required (thinner than 18 mm), the prismatic Li-ion cell is the best choice. There is little or no gain in energy density per weight and size over the 18650, however the cost is more than double.

If an ultra-slim geometry is needed (less than 4 mm), the best choice is Li-ion polymer. This is the most expensive option in terms of energy cost. The Li-ion polymer does not offer appreciable energy gains over conventional Li-ion systems, nor does it match the durability of the 18560 cell.

Advantages and Limitations of Li-ion Batteries


High energy density — potential for yet higher capacities. Relatively low self-discharge — self-discharge is less than half that of NiCd and NiMH.

Low Maintenance — no periodic discharge is needed; no memory.

Limitations Requires protection circuit — protection circuit limits voltage and current. Battery is safe if not provoked.

Subject to aging, even if not in use — storing the battery in a cool place and at 40 percent state-of-charge reduces the aging effect. Moderate discharge current.

Subject to transportation regulations — shipment of larger quantities of Li-ion batteries may be subject to regulatory control. This restriction does not apply to personal carry-on batteries.

Expensive to manufacture — about 40 percent higher in cost than NiCd. Better manufacturing techniques and replacement of rare metals with lower cost alternatives will likely reduce the price.

Not fully mature — changes in metal and chemical combinations affect battery test results, especially with some quick test methods.

Caution: Li-ion batteries have a high energy density. Exercise precaution when handling and testing. Do not short circuit, overcharge, crush, drop, mutilate, penetrate, apply reverse polarity, expose to high temperature or disassemble. Only use the Li-ion battery with the designated protection circuit. High case temperature resulting from abuse of the cell could cause physical injury. The electrolyte is highly flammable. Rupture may cause venting with flame.

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