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Preventing lithium-ion battery explosions

The challenge

Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are used in their billions worldwide, as the rechargeable power source everywhere from mobile phones to cars and planes. However, rare cases of catastrophic lithium-ion battery failure, leading to fires or explosions, have captured headlines and led to costly product recalls.

Often, explosions arise due to the process of “thermal runaway” in which the temperature of the battery rises too quickly for heat to dissipate. There is an urgent need to understand in detail how this failure mechanism occurs and how to prevent it.

The solution

We worked alongside collaborators including University College London (UCL) to investigate thermal runaway mechanisms, using high-speed X-ray tomography and radiography in combination with thermal imaging.

By inserting an internal short circuit device inside a custom-built 18650 cylindrical cell, thermal runaway could be triggered at a pre-determined location within the cell, making it possible to position the X-ray beam in exactly the right place to witness the initiation process.

The impact

This work has yielded unprecedented insight into the evolution of the internal structure of the cell in the milliseconds leading up to explosion and has resulted in high impact publications in Nature CommunicationsPhysical Chemistry Chemical PhysicsEnergy & Environmental ScienceThe Journal of the Electrochemical Society and Advanced Science.

The importance of this work has also been recognised through The Engineer’s 2017 Collaborate to Innovate Award in the Safety & Security category.

Ultimately, the new imaging techniques developed in this work will support improvements in Li-ion battery reliability and safety. This could help avoid disastrous failures such as the now-discontinued Samsung Galaxy Note 7, whose product recall in 2016 is estimated to have cost the business more than $5 billion.

Important pioneering research that has advanced our understanding of lithium battery failure.

The Engineer Collaborate to Innovate Awards - 2017