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Flaming batteries illustrate limits of basic science

Burning, smoking, and exploding batteries are certainly a headline-making occurrence, but they are not at all common. They are, though, an example of how the rush to technological advances sometimes depends on a supply of power that has not kept up.

Some things cannot be overcome. The more we pack into a smaller space, the more we run into space constraints. Nanotechnology can solve some problems, but eventually even that branch of science will run into a stopping point. The problem is thus: The more energy that is stored somewhere — anywhere — the more volatile that energy becomes. It’s a matter of chemistry that scientists have yet to overcome.

We are hearing about battery problems more and more, largely because the number of portable electronics devices using such batteries has multiplied exponentially in the past few years. Even at a small percentage, it is still a number in the hundreds because the overall number of batteries being used on any given day runs to the millions.

In a certain sense, we might need to build in some fire-prevention capabilities. After all, lithium ion batteries are manufactured with a combination of elements that are naturally prone to fire risk. Carbon and oxygen are the primary firestarters and are especially fire-prone when mixed with a flammable fluid, in this case lithiuim salt electrolyte. All of these elements have to be in there in order to make the battery’s “juice”, but so far, the natural tendencies of heat and an ever-shrinking space capacity have made a fire a very real possibility.

Scientists are definitely working on the problem, looking to change out certain elements and add others, in an effort to prevent the sort of flames that media reports fan into a crisis. One particularly hopeful line of experiments seems to be fuel cells, like the ones that power electric cars. Indeed, the thought of a battery-based fire in a hybrid car gives scientists nightmares. The cars on the market today (and those being planned for tomorrow) run a tiny risk of battery fire. That risk is so small as to be not worth worrying about.

Any alternative to today’s wildly popular lithium-ion battery scheme, however, would have to compete on price, something that can’t be done right now. As long as the yardstick is how much memory can be crammed into how small a space, battery manufacturers will continue to pursue strategies that create low-cost results. Only a wide risk of fire would convince makers and users to consider anything other than price.

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