May 3, 2012

Lithium-Ion-Battery – Industry Trends – Part 1

Part of the challenge in a product liability or personal injury case is understanding the factors contributing to product failure. This understanding can assist attorneys in selecting the appropriate expert witness.

An awareness of technical trends and “how things work” can be helpful to attorneys. To this end, we are running a series of posts on scientific topics; this week’s article is on lithium batteries.

Lithium-ion batteries are widely used in consumer electronics and all other applications requiring rechargeable batteries. This is a result of their excellent electrical performance, high energy density and long cycle life.  Lithium-ion batteries also have been demonstrated to have a good safety record and to be environmentally benign.  They have been widely used in portable electronic devices like cell phones, cameras, personal computers, power tools, and super capacitors, just to mention a few common applications.  Large lithium-ion batteries are being evaluated for use in electric automotive vehicles and standby power applications.

Li-ion batteries consist of insulator case, anode layer, cathode layer, insulating separators, and other components.  Proprietary positions have been developed by numerous organizations who have found novel materials technologies, fabrication methods and applications. 

Much research remains to be completed to optimize materials, safety and cost.  For example, present electric vehicle batteries are capable of powering only relatively small automobiles with low daily mileage requirements. This is due to inherent low power density (kWH/kg) and  long charge time requirements of multiple batteries.
Extensive private and public research and development are now being performed on Li-ion batteries to make them lighter, thinner, higher capacity and lower cost. For example, new Li-ion intercalation compounds for use in anodes and cathodes are being vigorously pursued.  New chemistries like Li-air are showing promise.  New non-aqueous electrolytes are being actively developed.  Ionic liquids with higher oxidation potentials,  low vapor pressure, non -flammability, greater thermal stability, lower  toxicity, high boiling points, high Li salt solubility, solid electrolytes are all being considered.

Thus, hundreds of patent applications each year add to the probability of future trade secret or patent infringement disputes. In recent years, just in the area of nanomaterials-based Li-ion batteries, over 100 patents were granted or published worldwide by the top 10 research organizations. In addition, issues regarding consumer safety (warnings, explosions) and product liability (design defects) are increasing as Li-ion batteries are transported around the world and deployed into consumer products.
The rapid growth of portable electronic devices and growing concerns about air pollution and global warming due to burning fossil fuels assures continued global growth.   R&D in Li battery materials and processing will continue to contribute to enhance the technologies.

As with most products, lithium batteries have a variety of advantages and disadvantages. These will be discussed in next week’s blog post.

The author of this blog post has a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from the University of Vermont. His experience includes developing lithium battery power supplies and starting a manufacturing line for lithium battery power supplies. Click  to read more about this technology consultant and expert witness.

The Project Managers at CECON are technical experts themselves with testifying and real world industrial and scientific experience.  Their professional expertise allows them to assist in identifying the expertise their clients may need for a case.