Oh Stanford University electrochemical masterminds, thank you for all of your continual hard work in the field of technology. Now that you have been tackling innovations in battery power, and released your new peer-reviewed paper, published by the journal Science Advances, the public knows what you’ve been up to. The researchers have been working on, and designing, a lithium-ion battery containing fire-extinguishing materials. So yes, if your mind goes directly to that huge Samsung Galaxy Note fire incident, where it exploded, you have the same apprehension most others do.
See, the reason for the explosion was the lithium-ion battery. As of late, you may have seen in the news that batteries in devices are actually blowing up left and right, as they have a seriously negative tendency to overheat. More specifically, the Li-ion, a great option for holding a charge and fitting into little devices, also goes through something called “thermal runaway”, where the exponential growth in heat becomes severely threatening. It’s said that the battery, which contains both an anode and cathode as its primary electrodes, can cause such serious problems if the two electrodes where to touch another. If this happens, you’ve got a serious threat of thermal runway kicking in. This can of course happen in more situations than one. In 2016, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board “issued a warning about lithium batteries in aeroplane cargo, considering and chronicling them as possible “fire and explosion ignition sources”.
So, the way to fix this is by separating the electrodes with a flame retardant. Pretty simple to hear and consider, but further technical details are necessary. Rather than the polymer, polyethylene, a.k.a. the most commonly used plastic out there, the researchers at Stanford tried a new separator on for size. While consisting of triphenyl phosphate (TPP), lovely fibrous threads of flame retardant, with a shell of the polymer PVDF-HFP, the solution worked by preventing TPP from seeping into the electrolyte.
But wait, science is science, guys, meaning more important things happen! Once the polymer shell hits 160 degrees Celsius, it melts. Once it melts, the discharge of TPP works itself into the electrolyte and “extinguishes the combustion” (just like a fireman, a tiny little fireman inside your smartphone!). Okay, maybe it’s not so simple. Maybe it’s more experimentation than anything, where the testing has been done in a coin cell, yet without enough results to completely back up it’s own theory. For the researchers to know if this works in the larger batteries, like in a smartphone or even an electric car, more experiments have to be performed. That’s for sure.
I mean, as it’s quite curious to test these flame retardant mechanisms in more than just smartphones, there’s most definitely a reason to do so. Because the whole Samsung Galaxy Note 7 freaked us all out (for goodness sake, even the Feds asked consumers to stop using their recently purchased phablets), battery fires have also been happening elsewhere. Companies besides Samsung, such as Tesla, Apple, and even hoverboard and electric skateboard companies, have experienced their fair share of battery fires and product recalls.
All in all, this type of innovation, a.k.a., the implementation of this new and improved combustion-extinguishing electrolyte, TPP, is said to presumably save companies the time and money they would of course require for any impediment against further innovations. One being, the betterment of the batteries by making them thinner as a more feasible safety precaution. On an ending note, batteries themselves are a difficult concept to push their capacity past their own limits. Even when possible, the consideration of risks and assessments should be number one.
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