We become accustomed conserving battery life the best we can with the gadgets we use. Why do those batteries drain? Obviously gadgets use energy, and the energy in batteries isn’t limitless, but what about the actual process of battery drain.
Battery death starts the second they leave the factory. It’s unavoidable and irreversible, and in lithium ion batteries, can totally destroy even a rarely used, mildly charged battery in as little as a few years.
With constant use (and abuse), a lithium ion’s lifespan can be under two years less—if losing more than a third of its capacity counts as death. Knowing that batteries work using a chemical process, it’s reasonable to expect some degradation. After all, no chemical reaction is perfect, and all result in some kind of energy loss, often producing unwanted results or substances. Batteries are no different.
“As batteries age, obstacles arise that reduce ion flow, and eventually make them unusable,” says Isidor Buchman, President of battery diagnostics and analysis company Cadex. “There are certain buildups that occur on the electrodes that inhibit ion flow,” he says. This results in a steady decline in performance.
What he’s talking about, mostly, is the gradual degradation of the cathode—the lithium part—by means of slow, unavoidable chemical changes. Repeated subtraction and addition of ions actually alters the structure of the lithium material, making it less receptive to future exchanges—a bit like a rag that’s been soaked and wrung a few hundred times too many. It becomes threadbare, molecularly speaking.
More destructively, the repeated and constant chemical reactions inside the battery leave dissolved metal on the cathode and, to a lesser extent, the anode. This can eventually form a sort of unwanted metallic plating on both.
Additionally, electrolytes in the battery are prone to decomposing. They oxidize on the cathode, leaving something like rust blocking the way of ions that are trying to jump back and forth. Common shorthand for this phenomenon is corrosion, and its effects are profound: The resulting battery, with its tired electrodes, broken-down electrolytes and corroded surfaces, is the picture of aging. It’s now terrible at being a battery.
Buchman says that this process in an inherent part of current battery technology, but that it doesn’t have to be so bad. “The consumer doesn’t want to pay much. (Batteries have) to be cheap. And they have to run for a long time; in a cellphone or laptop, run time is important.”
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