X-Rayted Files: Tales from the Files of Lithium-ion Batteries

Lithium-ion batteries have, in part, enabled the continued miniaturization of the devices we love. They have also played an important role in making practical electric cars a reality. But like other approaches to high density energy storage, they do present risks. I experienced this firsthand recently, and my interest in lithium-ion battery safety has been piqued (more on that later). Battery failures, especially those that result in fire, get a lot of attention. Stories of consumer products from vaping devices, hoverboards, smartphones and laptops, to electric cars and even passenger jets have garnered media attention for their sometimes spectacular failures. I’ll tell you a little story about my own experience and take a closer look at why these failures can occur in devices on which so many consumer electronics now depend. 

As electric cars are more widely adopted, the risks associated with lithium-ion battery failures is increasingly important to understand. As a scientist, tinkerer, and motorhead, I couldn’t resist the urge to convert my 1928 Ford Model A into an EV. Like many recent projects, this undertaking was, in part, a product of working from home at the onset of the pandemic and spending a few more of my waking hours than normal out in my garage. Months of research and work went into this conversion, procuring the necessary parts and adapting them to fit my vintage baby. It was a fun project, I learned a lot, and was decidedly proud of the result. 

cardoso_Model_EVA.jpgUnfortunately, I’m still learning. A couple of weeks ago, my converted Model A fell victim to a catastrophic lithium-ion battery fire. The fire happened overnight, without warning nor explanation.  The vehicle was not charging at the time, nor was it exposed to excessive heat or other external forces. The battery pack, repurposed from a Chevy Volt, simply caught fire while tucked away in my garage. While I’m deeply disappointed, I’m feeling two things even more intensely. I’m extremely grateful that the fire was limited to the Model A itself, and did not spread through the garage, nor to my home. I’m also overwhelmingly curious as to what might have instigated this sudden failure of the battery pack and its root causes. This is one of those times (there are, in fact, many) when owning your own X-ray company really comes in handy, as what remains of my vintage EV has been carefully transported to Creative Electron world headquarters for careful examination. I don’t know at this point what we might learn, but we will leave no scorched cells unturned as we investigate.   

Lithium-ion batteries risk overheating, and can result in fire or even explosions. Causes range from excessive heat exposure, vibration, charging at below freezing temperatures, mechanical damage, rapid discharge or overcharging, shorts, or manufacturer defects to name a few. Thermal runaway, when a single cell overheats to the point that it causes adjacent cells to overheat, is a chain reaction that can be difficult to stop. When such fires are successfully suppressed, the remaining cells are at risk of reigniting, sometimes days later, as such cells will retain what is referred to as stranded energy. Such events are most common in off brand, aftermarket, poorly manufactured and underregulated batteries that find their way into cheap consumer products such as those infamous vape pens and hoverboards. But even high quality, name brand batteries produced by safety conscious manufacturers can experience unexpected failures. It’s no surprise that the leading manufacturers of lithium-ion batteries employ tools such as automated X-ray inspection and CT in ensuring the highest quality and safety of their products. Conversely, there are also counterfeit batteries that are difficult for consumers to distinguish from authentic. The bad actors selling counterfeits are not likely to be taking all the same safety precautions in manufacturing as name brand manufacturers who produce premium products. Saving a few bucks on a battery can turn out to be costly. 

At every point in the product lifecycle, the safe handling and storage of lithium-ion batteries is imperative, and as their use pervades, the safe disposal and recycling of these batteries is increasingly important. According to a company called “e-cell secure” which focuses on safe storage, transportation, and recycling of lithium batteries, lithium-ion battery sales will more than double from 2019-2025. In an interview with Waste360, Ronald Butler, the CEO of e-cell secure notes, “There is inherent danger associated with the handling of batteries. In most cases, mechanical damage would probably rank as the highest risk factor for initiating a thermal runaway (fire/explosion) event. Improper handling can result in crush or puncture damage, possibly leading to the release of electrolyte material or short circuiting. These actions could result in thermal runaway and a resulting fire and/or explosion.” 

Lithium-ion batteries are essential to so many modern devices. They demand careful manufacturing, proper care in their use and handling, and perhaps even more care in their eventual disposal. While I for one wouldn’t want to live without them, I now have a slightly altered perspective as to living with them. What remains of my 1928 Model A will eventually rise from the ashes, and I’ll look forward sharing about its restoration, as well as what we learn about its recent misfortune.  Stay safe, everyone!

Dr. Bill Cardoso is CEO of Creative Electron

 

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2021

X-Rayted Files: Tales from the Files of Lithium-ion Batteries

06-23-2021

Lithium-ion batteries have, in part, enabled the continued miniaturization of the devices we love. They have also played an important role in making practical electric cars a reality. But like other approaches high density energy storage, they do present risks.

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X-Rayted Files: Genius, Evil, or Evil Genius?

05-20-2021

Apple dominates its market in many ways. Is this genius for the consumer, or does it effectively rule out any competition? Columnist Bill Cardoso debates its merits—and disadvantages for other players.

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X-Rayted Files: Crafting Our ‘Next Normal’

04-20-2021

As profound an experience as it has been to lead an enterprise through the pandemic, what’s to come may make every bit as much of an impression. So many things that we took for granted as practices and behaviors etched in stone, were interrupted, suspended, or eliminated entirely. As we exit the tunnel into the light of the post-pandemic, we will be challenged collectively in crafting the next normal.

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X-Rayted Files: The Bright Side of the Chip Shortage

03-17-2021

In his previous column, “The Dark Side of the Chip Shortage: Counterfeits,” Bill addressed one of unanticipated outcome of the crisis: the shortage of electronic components and predictable wave of counterfeit components likely to flood the market. Combating that tsunami of fakes may also accelerate the adoption of advanced techniques for detecting counterfeit components.

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X-Rayted Files: The Dark Side of the Chip Shortage—Counterfeits

02-17-2021

It’s February 2021, and as the world slowly recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, another problem plagues the global economy: the electronic component shortage. What some economists have deemed to be a decade of immense prosperity and growth, the “roaring ‘20s” started with a hiccup.

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X-Rayted Files: The Year of 2020 Vision

01-20-2021

What else can we say about 2020 that hasn’t been said? We have so much to reflect on, both to mourn and to be thankful for. The global pandemic has made an indelible mark on us all, and we, like everyone else, are changed forever. With the year behind us, and light at the end of the tunnel, we take a moment to look back as well as look forward.

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2020

X-Rayted Files: Solving for the Limits of Human Visual Inspection

12-16-2020

Because a key element of quality control in manufacturing is still good old-fashioned visual inspection, it’s important to understand the ability of operators to sustain their focus and what we can do to support their success. And while the fallibility of human inspection presents challenges, Dr. Bill Cardoso details how there are many ways to address shortcomings.

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X-Rayted Files: iPhone Transparency—A Window Into SMT

11-17-2020

Though we don’t do them just for fun, teardowns are fun, but they have also taught us more than we could have imagined. Modern teardowns provide critical insights into the nature and construction of these devices. As an example, Dr. Bill Cardoso details the history of the iPhone as told through X-ray.

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X-Rayted Files: A Century of X-Rays in the Automotive Industry, Part 2

10-28-2020

As one of the main users of X-ray inspection, the automotive industry has been one of the main drivers for the development of higher power and higher resolution X-ray imaging systems. Dr. Bill Cardoso continues with Part 2 of this column series.

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X-Rayted Files: A Century of X-Rays in the Automotive Industry, Part 1

09-29-2020

If you have read any of Bill Cardoso's previous columns, you know that he is passionate about X-rays, cars, and electronics. In this column series, he talks about some of his idols, including Curie, Roentgen, Marconi, Galvin, and Ford.

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X-Rayted Files: Is Quality Really Priceless?

08-19-2020

In a day and age when we can learn virtually anything online, manufacturers still manage to be opaque about pricing, especially when it comes to specialty equipment. Some may say, “Quality is priceless,” but Bill Cardoso explains how it isn't.

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X-Rayted Files: Marching Toward 2021, 20 Miles at a Time

07-29-2020

We’re only at the halfway mark, and 2020 has been a real challenge. Our best-laid plans have been cast in doubt by the COVID-19 pandemic. During this transformational time, Dr. Bill Cardoso looks back a century for a bit of inspiration from Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.

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X-Rayted Files: E-Commerce Boom Fraught With Risk—X-Rays to the Rescue

06-17-2020

It’s not news that online sales are increasing dramatically during this global pandemic. However, with increased sales comes the increased risk of return fraud and abuse. Dr. Bill Cardoso explains how X-ray can help detect dummy and counterfeit merchandise.

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X-Rayted Files: Why Do We Break Stuff? Intelligence From Teardowns

05-20-2020

The impulse to break a new gadget to "see what's inside" and to “learn how it works” is often the first sign someone will become an engineer. We’ve learned a lot in over a decade of teardowns, which have helped us to understand how the SMT industry has changed over these years. Bill Cardoso investigates.

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X-Rayted Inspection: Manufacturing in the Eye of a Pandemic

04-08-2020

Dr. Bill Cardoso usually writes about X-ray inspection, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and how it all connects to Industry 4.0. This month, however, he shifts gears and shares some of the things Creative Electron has been doing during the COVID-19 outbreak.

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X-rayted Files: X-ray and AI—A Match Made In Heaven, Part 2

03-18-2020

In Part 1, Dr. Bill Cardoso covered the basics of the relationship between X-ray inspection and artificial intelligence (AI). In Part 2, Cardoso takes a step forward to cover some of the practical ways we use AI to improve the efficiency of our X-ray inspections.

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2019

X-Rayted Files: Will Radiation Damage My Electronic Component?

12-17-2019

Before I start talking about radiation damage on electronic components, let me warn you: if you are looking for a simple “yes” or “no” answer to the question, "Will radiation damage my electronic component?" stop reading now. Things will get complicated. You may feel like I did not answer the question at all, and you would be correct. There are whole conferences dedicated to this question (check IEEE’s Nuclear and Space Radiation Effects Conference), so the goal of this column is to give you some background to guide you to the right answer for your specific situation. Ultimately, the best way is to ask an expert.

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X-Rayted Files: The Currency of Technology

11-11-2019

In the ever-moving tide of technology, the need to innovate requires a constant shift in vision, and this need has never been more evident than in PCB manufacturing. In fact, innovation has become so valuable that PCBs are quickly becoming the currency of technology. Dr. Bill Cardoso explains.

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X-Rayted Files: The Risk of Installing Counterfeit Parts

10-02-2019

In high-tech manufacturing, the use of sub-standard components can be catastrophic. There is no greater need for quality control than in PCBs, as they are only as good as the components installed on them; therein lies the problem. Some components shipped to manufacturers are counterfeit!

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X-Rayted Files: Just Because You Can't See the Problem Doesn't Mean It's Not There!

08-20-2019

In this new column, Dr. Bill Cardoso will cover everything related to X-rays from cool historical facts to the latest in technological advancements, starting with the discovery of X-rays in 1895.

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