Electrifying, just electrifying…

Sony Camera NEX-6 Lithium Ion battery

Sony Camera NEX-6 Lithium Ion battery

Toronto. In recent news we heard about the Samsung fiasco with its Note 7 smartphones  suddenly bursting into flames. Once replacement phones also combusted, Samsung elected to recall all Note 7 smartphones and cease manufacture, taking a massive hit in market share.

A bit of background: batteries are divided into primary cells (single use) and secondary (rechargeable). The various chemical processes were well known over a century ago but improvements were necessary before the technologies became marketable commodities.

Over a half a century ago, when I was a kid, batteries were usually zinc-carbon technology and available in the same sizes as today (AA, AAA, C, D, etc), usually as a national name brand product – like Eveready or Ray-O-Vac. Leave them in your flashlight or radio and you risked changing the devices into a gooey mess as the electrolyte quietly ate through the zinc case allowing acid to drip into the light or radio.

A few years later, a new (old) technology arrived in the marketplace called Alkaline. This process was far less likely to ooze acid and lasted far longer than the zinc-carbon cells. In most cases the cells could not be charged and reused. Once depleted of electric current, they were finished.

Storage batteries were usually lead acid technology. Useful where high currents were needed and able to be “floated” or continuously charged. The traditional storage battery would leak if broken or tipped over, spewing out sulphuric acid. A newer process called Nickle Cadmium or NiCad was offered but early NiCad cells had a memory, and if recharged when still charged to a degree, would soon refuse to accept a full charge. In time both technologies used a gel mixture as an electrolyte  allowing the cells to be tipped or even used on their side with no loss of power or leakage.

Even newer technologies came to market such as Nickle-Metal-Hydride (NiMH) and Lithium-ion. The Lithium-ion batteries are light and have a high density of watts vs. cubic inch. The trouble with Lithium-ion is the need for using volatile chemicals and a delicate thin separator between the two poles. Occasionally metal crystals form and pierce the separator causing an internal short circuit and fire. Situations like Samsung’s Note 7 are a result.

The cost of Alkaline batteries today is often less than the cost of zinc-carbon batteries when I was a kid. If you do a bit of research on Google, gel cells such as used in my UPS system (uninterrupted power supply) and garage door opener can be found for a fraction of the cost of the same battery from the makers of the UPS or garage door.

To get around the issue of cheap alternatives, makers of batteries for cameras, tools, and lawn mowers went to electronics (possibly the electronics are needed to control the battery temperature during use and charging). My Sony camera and my Ryobi mower both use Lithium-ion batteries plus electronics. The batteries notify me of the percentage discharged at any given point in time.

Neat but expensive. If a battery fails, is it the electronics (proprietary) or the individual cells? A wrong decision could be time consuming and costly. While you can buy a lower cost battery for a Sony camera without the ability to monitor charge level, I haven’t seen a similar low cost option for my lawn mower.

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