Lithium batteries have become a seamless part of our daily lives powering countless devices and equipment used in the modern tech-savvy world. We started using lithium metal cells and batteries in many gadgets as early as the 1970s. Today, with the advancement of lithium battery technology and the availability of both lithium ion and lithium metal batteries to power equipment, the usage of lithium batteries has grown exponentially. As a result, people have become progressively more dependent on lithium cells and batteries for an increasingly mobile lifestyle.
As lithium batteries have a higher energy density, they are more powerful and can be effectively used to power equipment that requires higher levels of energy for longer periods. As such many devices including laptops, cordless tools, mobile telephones, watches, wheelchairs, and motor vehicles are operated using lithium batteries. However, the higher energy density of lithium cells and batteries makes them more hazardous due to the increased risks of fires and explosions. Resultantly, using lithium batteries can increase the risk to human health and safety, especially for those people involved in handling and transporting lithium batteries.
What is the Difference between a Lithium Cell and a Lithium Battery?
The distinction between a lithium cell and a lithium battery is important as the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has developed specific requirements for the transportation of lithium cells and lithium batteries.
|What is a Lithium Cell?||What is a Lithium Battery?|
|A lithium cell is a single-encased electrochemical unit that contains lithium ions or lithium metal.||The term “lithium battery” refers to one or more lithium cells that are electrically connected.|
Note, a single-cell lithium battery is considered a “cell” and must be shipped in line with the regulatory requirements set forth for the transportation of lithium cells.
How do Lithium Batteries Work?
Lithium battery cells work with a positive electrode, a negative electrode, a separator, and an electrolyte solution, like other types of battery. Atoms or molecules with a net electric charge (ions) are transferred from a positive electrode to a negative electrode through an electrolyte solution enabling the lithium cells and batteries to release power by converting chemical potential energy into electrical energy using lithium ions or lithium metal (OSHA, 2019).
Lithium ion (Li-ion) cells and batteries contain lithium only in an ionic form in the electrolyte. Developed on advanced rechargeable battery technology, Li-ion batteries move ions from a positive to a negative electrode during the charging or discharging process. The electrolyte solution enables ions to flow freely between the electrodes. Examples of devices that use lithium ion cells or batteries are laptops, tablet computers, cellular telephones, power tools, and hybrid vehicles.
Lithium metal (LiM) cells and batteries use lithium in metallic form. LiM cells and batteries are non-rechargeable and utilize lithium metal electrodes to create a chemical reaction that releases energy to power equipment. Lithium metal batteries cannot be charged and must be replaced once the initial supply of energy is used. Lithium metal cells or batteries are commonly used in wristwatches, calculators, smoke detectors, hearing aids, car key fobs, defibrillators, and children’s toys.
Types of Lithium Ion Batteries
Lithium ion is the most popular type of rechargeable battery used today. Several types of lithium ion batteries are used to power various devices and equipment. They come in different sizes and shapes and comprise different voltages. The six types of lithium ion batteries and their common applications are summarized below.
|Type of Lithium Ion Battery||Applications|
|Lithium Cobalt Oxide||Mobile phonesLaptopElectronic cameras Other portable electronic devices|
|Lithium Manganese Oxide||Medical equipmentPower toolsElectric motorcyclesLaptop computers Electric vehicles|
|Lithium Iron Phosphate (LFP)||Electric vehiclesElectric bikes Other applications requiring a long lifecycle and high levels of safety|
|Lithium Nickel Manganese Cobalt Oxide (NMC)||Power tools Automobile powertrains Electric vehicles|
|Lithium Nickel Cobalt Aluminum Oxide||Electric vehiclesGrid storage|
|Lithium Titanate||Electric vehicles Electric bicyclesSolar streetlights Telecommunications systemsHas the potential for use inElectric busesMilitary and aerospace applicationsStoring wind and solar energy Constructing smart gridsPower system system-critical backups|
(Sources: Inverted, n.d.; Dragonfly Energy, 2021)
It is worth keeping in mind that lithium battery technology is considered relatively new technology, even though it has been around since the 1970s. Thus, as technology evolves, lithium battery technology will also evolve and improve, bringing with it many new uses and advantages.
What are the advantages of lithium ion batteries?
Like other types of batteries, lithium cells and batteries have different features and their innate pros and cons. The main advantages of using lithium ion batteries are:
- High energy density – The high energy density allows the batteries to last longer and power devices (e.g., mobile devices, power tools, and electric vehicles) for longer periods even when they consume more energy.
- Self-discharge – Lithium batteries are rechargeable batteries with low rates of self-discharge. This is especially advantageous for lithium ion batteries that last longer without requiring frequent charges.
- Low maintenance – No specific maintenance is required for lithium ion batteries.
- Higher cell voltage – Lithium batteries have a higher voltage than other types of batteries including alkaline batteries. Thus, depending on the use of the lithium battery, even one cell would be adequate to power a device for a longer period.
- Plug and use – Do you remember when we had to first charge batteries before they could be used? With lithium batteries, this is not a concern anymore. When devices come installed with lithium batteries, like our mobile phones, these are ready to be used.
- Many available types – As explained in the previous section, lithium ion and lithium metal batteries come in various types that can be used for different applications.
What are the disadvantages of lithium ion batteries?
Like any other products and technologies, lithium batteries also have some drawbacks, even though the many benefits have made lithium batteries popular for different applications. Here are the disadvantages of lithium ion batteries.
- Protection against overcharging and over-discharging – Lithium batteries or the equipment using the lithium battery must have protection circuitry installed to safeguard against overcharging or over-discharging, as otherwise, the Li-Ion batteries can become a safety hazard. This is not too much of a hassle, due to today’s access to advanced technology.
- Need for a battery management system or circuitry – Lithium batteries require proper battery management systems or circuitry incorporated to ensure no overcharge, over-discharge, and temperature monitoring and control.
- Battery Ageing – Lithium batteries can “age” quite fast. This aging is not only dependent on the period of use (months and years) but also depends on the number of times the battery is charged and discharged. Thus, predicting the weakening of lithium batteries is not straightforward.
- High Cost – The cost of lithium batteries is much higher than the cost of other types of batteries.
Safely Shipping Lithium Batteries
The growing use of lithium ion and lithium metal cells and batteries, as well as products operating on lithium cells or batteries, have resulted in authorities developing stringent rules for the shipping or transporting of lithium batteries. In the United States, the Department of Transportation’s Hazardous Materials Regulations (DOT HMR) has developed regulations that govern the transportation of lithium ion and lithium metal batteries by highway, rail, air, and water. Thus, as the demand for lithium batteries increases, shippers and carriers must also increasingly be aware of, and adhere to, the regulatory requirements.
Furthermore, as many devices and equipment using lithium batteries are often transported by air, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and IATA Dangerous Goods Regulations (DGR) also have developed regulations for transporting lithium batteries by air. The rules and regulations for air transportation of lithium batteries are more stringent than when shipping lithium batteries in vehicles, trains, or ships. When lithium batteries are being shipped by vessel, (for example, an electric car) then the International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) Code must be consulted to meet lithium battery shipping requirements.
These codes and regulations have been developed to safeguard employers and employees as well as the public from the hazards of fires and/or explosions that can occur due to the higher energy density contained in one cell of a lithium battery. Resultantly, shippers, carriers, and transporters of lithium ion and lithium metal batteries must be trained. Online trainers like HAZWOPER OSHA Training, LLC, offer a range of lithium batteries training courses to comply with the DOT, IATA, and IMDG requirements for shipping lithium batteries. These courses cover regulations and safe handling and transportation requirements for fully regulated and excepted or smaller lithium cells and batteries, as well as the rules for shipping stand-alone lithium cells and batteries, and lithium cells and batteries contained in or packed with equipment.
Electronics Notes. (n.d.). Lithium ion battery advantages & disadvantages. Website. https://www.electronics-notes.com/articles/electronic_components/battery-technology/li-ion-lithium-ion-advantages-disadvantages.php
Dragonfly Energy. (2021, September 27). A guide to the 6 main types of lithium batteries. Website. https://dragonflyenergy.com/types-of-lithium-batteries-guide/
Inverted. (n.d.). Types of lithium-ion batteries available in the market. Website. https://inverted.in/blog/types-of-lithium-ion-batteries-available-in-the-market
OSHA. (2019). Preventing fire and/or explosion injury from small and wearable lithium battery powered devices. Safety and Health Information Bulletin (SHIB 06-20-2019). [PDF]. Website. https://www.osha.gov/sites/default/files/publications/shib011819.pdf
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