New Non-flammable, Lithium-Ion Battery: Researchers Hope To Make Exploding Laptops And Cell Phones A Thing Of The Past

By Josh Lieberman on February 10, 2014 4:19 PM EST

cell phone battery
Researchers have created a non-flammable lithium-ion battery, which has the potential to power cell phones, laptops and even planes. (Photo: Reuters)

Researchers have created a lithium-ion battery that won't burst into flames when overheated, a serendipitous, "unexpected result" of completely unrelated research. The new technology, which could vastly improve the safety of batteries powering everything from cell phones to airplanes, was discovered by researchers studying a material that prevents marine life from sticking to ships. The non-flammable material, perfluoropolyether, or PFPE, replaces the rather flammable electrolyte in lithium-ion batteries, eliminating fire risk. 

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"There is a big demand for these batteries and a huge demand to make them safer," said lead researcher Joseph DeSimone of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Researchers have been looking to replace this electrolyte for years, but nobody had ever thought to use this material called perfluoropolyether, or PFPE, as the main electrolyte material in lithium-ion batteries before." 

PFPE has been used in industrial machinery for years. After realizing that the material's chemical structure was similar to a polymer electrolyte commonly used in lithium-ion batteries, DeSimone figured that the non-flammable PFPE might make a good electrolyte substitute. The material did turn out to be compatible for use in a battery, but there's still a lot of work to be done before such a battery can be scaled up for commercial use; conductivity issues and battery cycle improvements will need to be studied further. 

Current lithium-ion batteries explode because of "thermal runaway," which is when overheating causes a chain reaction of cells breaking open. Lithium works well in batteries because it produces a lot of energy and has a low atomic mass, making batteries lighter. But lithium is also highly reactive, which is not exactly something you want to be associated with the device in your purse or the vessel you're flying in 30,000 feet above the ground. 

The flammability of lithium ion batteries is why you sometimes read about laptops exploding "like fireworks" or a cell phone bursting into flames in someone's pocket. The problem has been known for a while: as far back as 2003, one research and development tech exec called the problem "a tiger in a cage," and as Techlicious noted in August, there have been over 40 recalls of products with lithium-ion batteries since 2002. 

The issue of the lithium-ion batteries's safety has been in the news recently due to battery explosions in some high-profile products. In November 2013, the batteries of two Tesla Model S cars burst into flames, prompting a still-ongoing investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Last month, a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the company's $212-million, state-of-the-art plane, experienced smoke in its cabin from an apparently leaking lithium-ion battery. One year before the incident, the entire Dreamliner fleet was grounded worldwide after batteries on two planes overheated. 

The PFPE battery research was detailed in a study published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  

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