The Lowdown on Lithium-ion

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Using a lithium-ion battery, the new Nissan Leaf can reportedly travel 100 miles without a charge. Photo: Flickr/cliff1066

What do cell phones, laptops, mp3 players, power tools and hybrid cars have in common? All these devices are a viable market for lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries, and the demand for these batteries keeps on growing.

While some tout lithium-ion as the next big innovation in electronics, other say they’re rumored to burst into flames and are harder to dispose of. We get down to where the technology is headed and what you need to know as a consumer about li-on batteries.

What’s in a name?

It’s important to first understand the difference between lithium and li-ion batteries. Lithium batteries are non-rechargeable and can come in a number of different forms – from alkaline to button cell. Li-ion batteries use more stable lithium compounds that allow them to be recharged, and they range in size depending on the electronic device they are powering.

Li-ion batteries are not available in standard sizes like AA (while lithium batteries are), so it’s possible you’ve never seen a li-ion battery on its own, even though you likely come in contact with them daily. Both batteries provide a longer life than other battery chemistries, meaning you’ll need to replace them less often.

The most common application for li-ion batteries are notebook computers, but the automobile industry is already researching lithium-ion batteries for hybrid and electric cars. The new Chevy Volt electric car can go 40 miles on electricity only with the help of a li-ion battery, and the Nissan Leaf can reportedly travel 100 miles without a charge. The potential to reduce the carbon footprint of cars is also fueling changes to li-ion technology.

“We’ve seen significant advances in these batteries over the past few years due to electric vehicles,” says Carl Smith, CEO of Call2Recycle, the only free rechargeable battery and cell phone collection program in North America. “This corresponds with an increased trend toward li-ion battery use in consumer electronics.”

The “Lithium L’s”

To figure out the benefits of lithium batteries, just remember the three L’s:

It’s possible you’ve never seen a li-ion battery on its own, even though you likely come in contact with them daily, such as with your laptop computer. Photo: Flickr/Kordite

  1. They are lighter than other battery types, meaning it will cost less to ship products with li-ion batteries and are easier to transport (another important features for car batteries because less weight means better gas mileage).
  2. They last longer on a single-charge, which is key for consumer electronics that are designed to be used away from an outlet.
  3. They are less toxic than lead-acid and nickel cadmium batteries, since they don’t contain heavy metals.

So based on that last point, some may think that li-ion batteries should be thrown away when they no longer hold a charge because they will pose less of a problem in landfills. But they do have recycling value.

“Lithium is more scarce than other metals, which makes recycling even more important,” says Smith. “The majority of output when recycled is a cobalt by-product, that is sent back to battery manufacturers to produce new batteries.”

One L term you will not hear associated with li-ion batteries is “less expensive,” as they are the priciest battery chemistry available. In fact, as the consumer , you will typically pay more for a product with li-ion batteries because they are more difficult to manufacture.

“Side by side, electronics with lithium batteries may be significantly more expensive,” says Smith. If you need to buy a replacement battery though, don’t purchase a different type as you could do damage to your electronics by trying to use a nickel metal hydride battery in a li-ion device. Plus, you wouldn’t get the long battery life.

Safety concerns over lithium-ion

Several years ago, there was a debate about the safety of li-ion batteries after millions were recalled due to overheating and the potential to catch fire. Since then, the technology has been adapted to address many of those hazards, but li-ion batteries are still more volatile than other battery types.

Still, there are some safety tips to remember: Keep li-ion batteries away from other batteries. You’ll also want to protect the terminals when it comes time for recycling, which is why many programs like Call2Recycle require you to individually wrap these batteries.

Another good tip is to keep these batteries from overheating. For laptops, this means keeping proper ventilation by not blocking the fan. You may also want to consider removing the battery while your laptop is plugged in to an outlet.

Read More
The Ultimate Battery Guide
Battery Recycling Hits Record High
Non-Toxic Battery a ‘Significant Step’ For Recycling

Earth911 partners with many industries, manufacturers and organizations to support its Recycling Directory, the largest in the nation, which is provided to consumers at no cost. Call2Recycle is one of these partners.

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Trey Granger

Trey Granger

Trey Granger is a former senior waste stream analyst for Earth911.
Trey Granger