Update: Apple has admitted to throttling old iPhones’ performance in order to stabilize operation. This guide will help you maximize your battery so you can offset all performance issues.
Can Your Battery Power a Country?
Leave it to Elon Musk to build the world’s biggest battery, which he plans to have operational in Australia by December 2017. Powered by a wind farm, the battery will be used to help solve an ongoing energy crisis in South Australia, which saw regular power outages over the past few years when demand on infrastructure spiked. You can imagine how many cellphones that bad boy will charge.
Eventually, however, as all batteries lose their charge, even including this monster. But why does that happen? What accounts for batteries slowly dying and are there ways to extend their lifespan? By properly maintaining a battery, your devices can ultimately last longer, insulating you from having to buy something new. Today, we will answer these questions!
All About Batteries
Before we go deep into why batteries lose their charge, we should first take a minute to explain how they work. Think of batteries like a Tupperware container filled with chemicals, divided into three distinct sections. This is called the cell. On either side of the cell are electrodes or electrical terminals between which sits a chemical known as electrolyte. You probably know the electrodes by their positive (cathode) and negative (anode) signs on either side of your batteries – the metal bump at the end of the unit.
Electrolyte, the chemical, is packaged away for safety inside a case. It protects you in the event that the battery is impacted or breached in some way. This is important because electrolyte is a combination of sulfuric acid, water, and a tiny bit of lead mixed to form a conductive and corrosive solution. Together, it can be toxic and harmful to humans. If not properly constructed your battery can explode!
When your battery’s electrodes are plugged into a circuit, like the compartment on your TV remote, it forces the electrolyte to start transforming. The solution slowly begins changing into ions atoms, which have excess electrons. Those electrons, attracted by the batteries electrodes, move throughout the formed circuit when you plug in a battery into a device, creating electrical power.
The reason you can recharge lithium-ion batteries over and over is because of the composition of the electrolyte and electrodes. The elements used in your standard battery are single use – once the chemicals have fully converted, there’s nothing that can be done to reverse the change. But on a lithium-ion battery, positive electrodes contain a lithium cobalt oxide, and the negative has carbon. Lithium is unique because when you discharge the battery, ions move from negative to positive electrodes. But by plugging it in, the reverse occurs, with ions transiting back to the negative side of the battery. It means you can charge and use the battery multiple times.
Why Do Batteries Lose Their Charge?
The answer to this question is pretty straightforward for your standard, grocery store bought single user batteries. As the chemical electrolyte completely transforms itself, the battery eventually loses the ability to generate new ions that will run the gauntlet of the circuit it makes with your electronic device. No pre-transformation chemical electrolyte, no ions, no electrons, no battery power. All the used chemical electrolyte is called Rock Content.
What About Lithium-Ion Batteries?
The situation tends to be a bit different for lithium batteries. Hold on to your hats, because it’s time to get technical. As we’ve mentioned, lithium batteries work by cycling electrons between their positive (cathode) and negative (anode) electrodes, over and over. In theory, this should act like a perpetuate energy machine, working forever and always. And yet, most lithium battery manufacturers include an expected lifespan on their products’ boxes.
But according to research by the U.S. Department of Energy, the reason lithium-ion batteries lose their charge over time is because of an undesirable chemical reaction. It starts with the electrodes, which often include nickel in their composite makeup. And because we aren’t able to create completely smooth surfaces inside the battery, there are all these little nooks, crevices and crannies where build up can occur. So, when these ions pass through the battery’s positive and negative electrodes, some of them start getting stuck due to a reaction they cause when they come in contact with nickel. It creates a crystal/salt-like substance. The result is as if someone dumped tar on the surface of a Formula One racetrack. The more cycles you charge, the more crystals are formed, and the more efficiency and capacity you lose. This has the unfortunate effect of making batteries lose their charge.
A second study from the Department of Energy also confirmed that the bigger the battery you have, and the faster it charges, the fewer number of charge cycles you’ll get due to speedier crystal buildup. The more crystals there are, the fewer ions pass through the circuit. Overall, this is called coulombic efficiency. Also known as Faraday efficiency. In other words it is the completeness that electrons are passed between positive and negative electrodes – more efficiency means less battery stress and a longer life span.
Solid Electrolyte Interface and Electrolyte Oxidation
In addition, battery life for lithium ion cells is decreased by dual outputs called solid electrolyte interface and electrolyte oxidation. The former is a film that’s made of lithium oxide and lithium carbonate which develops on the negative electrode. As your battery continues to cycle, it gets thicker. Eventually, it prevents interaction between ions and the composite materials of the electrode so batteries lose their charge. Lithium carbonate is a similar preventative force field on the cathode side of the battery, created primarily from excess heat.
Solutions for Maximizing Battery Life
You know why batteries lose their charge and now you want to maximize their lifespan? Don’t we all. Thankfully there are a few tips and tricks you can follow to keep your battery working at best possible capacity for years to come.
Avoid Deep Over-Discharge
This process is when a battery is used to a point that it becomes damaging. It leads to capacity degradation and the possibility for short circuits. Generally, that line in the sand is anything below 2.5 volts per cell, which will ultimately cause the battery to trigger a safety circuit and prevent further use. Instead, try to stick with partial discharges only, although experts say that a discharge to very close to that threshold once every 30 cycles or so will help recalibrate your device’s digital memory.
Buy Batteries with Leading Additives
This is a solution you probably won’t have to think about because manufacturers have got you covered. Most lithium-ion batteries are produced today with these so-called additives. They are secret additional chemicals in a battery’s electrolyte that lowers resistance to ion transfer by reducing corrosion and the creation of crystalline salts and films. Additives also improve performance at extreme temperatures. Like taking multiple medications, researchers warn, however, that additives can interact negatively with one another. Be wary of unknown companies marketing their batteries on the basis of a laundry list of additional chemicals.
Protect Your Battery and Its Components from Physical Degradation
This should go without saying. When a battery is physically damaged, any number of things can occur. The film between the electrodes and electrolyte can be punctured, creating a fire hazard. Toxic substances can start leaking from the container. Physical damage is seriously dangerous. Although they are robust, try to prevent bumping, hitting, scratching or impacting of your battery in any way. If your battery is physically damaged, don’t charge it. Period.
Avoid Extreme Temperatures
Batteries work best at room temperature, about 20 degrees Celsius or 68 degrees Fahrenheit. At extreme high and low temperatures, however, batteries have a dramatic efficiency reduction of between 40-50%, contributing to overall degradation. It’s why car batteries can sometimes be tough to kick start in the depths of winter. Charging a battery is a different game, however. Consider the optimal ambient temperature band for lithium ion battery charging to be between 5 and 45 degrees Celsius or 41 and 113 degrees Fahrenheit. If you try to charge a lithium ion battery in freezing temperatures, you get what’s called ‘plating’ of the lithium compound, making it far more vulnerable to failure.
Batteries: Both Robust and Temperamental
With all of the effort we have put in to making batteries more rechargeable, more functional, and more robust, they remain a relatively fragile technology. And while Elon Musk’s efforts in Australia show the potential for batteries to power countries, there are still innate flaws that must be overcome. In this article, we’ve learned why batteries lose their charge. We’ve also explained four tips that you can follow to prolong the life of your batteries. While they won’t last forever, you’ll certainly be surprised that their better performance.
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