|Walter Salm, Editor Emeritus|
Lithium. It's number 3 in the Periodic Table, it is the lightest of known metals, and was first used as early as the 2nd Century A.D. in ancient Greece by physician Soranus to control bipolar disorders. The Greek physician didn't know it was the lithium that was working the wonders, but the element occurred naturally in the alkaline waters in his town of Ephesus, and helped people with mania and depression. It wasn't isolated as an element until 1817 in Sweden.
Lithium is an incendiary, a fact that has come home to roost with the many lithium battery fires we have experienced, most recently in a whole bunch of new Samsung cell phones that were so crammed full of functionality that there apparently was not enough room for battery and processor heat to dissipate adequately. And not too long ago, Boeing had to ground all of its spanking-new 787 Dreamliners because of fires in the lithium batteries that were part of the aircraft's electrical system.
Why has this become such a problem now? Because we have been taking too much of today's technology for granted, without noticing the pimples on otherwise flawless complexions. The tiniest of defects or leaks in the battery case can spell disaster because pure lithium exposed to the atmosphere will explode, it's that flammable. Yet we find it in batteries in millions of cell phones, tablets and computers, simply because it's so much more efficient at storing energy in batteries than anything else that the scientific community has discovered to date. For all of their potentially disastrous properties, lithium ion rechargeable batteries are still a vast improvement over nickel-cadmium batteries which did a gradual disappearing act once the lithium products were deemed practicable.
If we are manufacturing and using so many Li-ion batteries, why are there still incidents of spontaneous fires? For one thing, designers of products that use these storage devices tend to think of lithium batteries as a commodity, a technology that has been well developed and refined. That idea is fine as far as it goes, but there are still suppliers — particularly in China — who will think nothing of cutting corners where safety margins and materials are concerned, and let the buyer beware. The manufacturing buyer must also be very aware of the potential danger, because his products can get some very bad press and end up with very costly recalls, as in the case of Samsung. And as for the Boeing Dreamliner, the "fix" has been to provide better battery containment in fireproof boxes to prevent the spread of any more lithium fires. Containment? How about a redesign? I don't think I would want to board a Dreamliner until this problem has been totally resolved.
In the good news department, there has been a breakthrough development at the University of Maryland in College Park. Researchers there have replaced the hazardous lithium-coated carbon disc at the heart of coin-cell batteries with a lithium-coated ceramic disc. The new disc has resisted all efforts to purposely ignite it, and may point the way toward a whole new class of non-combustible lithium batteries. And it still remains to be seen whether or not this technology can be upsized to the larger batteries that we use in computers, electric automobiles and Dreamliners. Manufacturing such a battery would require retooling an entire industry, and since over 85 percent of all Li-ion batteries are now made in Asia, it gives U.S. manufacturers a new opportunity to rebuild and reshore a major part of the electronics manufacturing industry. Tesla is building its gigafactory, a gargantuan battery plant in Nevada that is expected to be up and running by 2020. Now it's time for other U.S. companies to follow suit.