On lithium-ion batteries, smartphones, and impermanence

Lithium-ion batteries power everything that's remotely portable. But they literally die a bit each day. What can we do about that?

Here’s one of those facts that is somehow both reassuring and disheartening in equal amounts: no matter how perfectly you treat your phone or tablet, you only get three or four years until it’s functionally useless without a charging cord nearby. It’s not cheap components, it’s chemistry. That means that the first generation of iPad owners is just getting around to realizing the inevitably disposable nature of so much modern technology.

As explained in an informative, honest Popular Mechanics post, lithium-ion batteries and newer lithium-polymer batteries provide power by moving ions from the anode to the cathode. When you recharge a battery, you force the ions back from the cathode into the anode. As with everything in your life that’s somewhat vague and can cause you financial fear (house, car, kids), forcing things upon a battery eventually reduces its dependability.

Over time, this process wears out the cathode, which results in reduced capacity. A high-end lithium-polymer battery can lose about 20 percent of its capacity after 1000 charge cycles. Another way to think of this is to imagine that every time you recharge your laptop, you shave a few seconds off its maximum battery life. Erratic charging and heat speed up this degradation.

Four-cell li-ion battery with contact/interface removed

The best you can do is to get your device’s battery charge to about 50 percent, remove the battery from said device, and then store it at a moderate temperature. But even then, that’s three or maybe four years before that battery is mostly useless. Really large and sophisticated battteries may provide enough leftover juice to be somewhat functional—20 percent off of 1,000 leaves you with more than 20 percent off of 500—but the outcome is the same: your device is one-fifth, two fifths, or even less of what it was when it still had that dopamine-triggering New Gadget Smell.

Is that partly why the standard U.S. understanding of a smartphone involves a two-year cycle? Probably. Carriers know that after two years, the halo is going to come off your device, and the need to charge it at 3 p.m. every day is going to make you anxious. Even if you break free and buy an unlocked phone, you’re going to need another battery for it every so many years. On most phones, that’s just a quick and relatively cheap Amazon/NewEgg purchase, but on Apple devices and some newer-fangled devices, that’s sending your device to the manufacturer, if battery replacement is even offered.

Battery technology on display at Argonne National Laboratory

So what’s next, then? Surveying the news and science-savvy sites, you get the impression that we’re all-in on making lithium-ion batteries better, lighter, and cheaper, not finding a new paradigm. A big part of that is driven by hybrid and electric cars, where an annual 20 percent capacity loss is a very expensive, very hard to sell problem. Porous aluminum, faster charging, impregnable lead—all could help eke ever more power out of a fragile chemisty balancing act.

But the best lithium-ion technology we could achieve engenders the same relationship we now have with our technology: take it out of the box, plug it into your wall, and know that the next time you use it is the best time. When the time no longer adds up to enough time, you’ll maybe buy a replacement battery. Otherwise, you might get crafty and work around the do-not-touch nature of your device using a guide at iFixIt. But eventually, you’ll think your device doesn’t do enough for long enough, and you’ll send it to, at best, be recycled.

There are some interesting philosophies and states of mind you might derive from knowing that the gadgets you hold so central to your ability to get things done are literally dying in your hands, every day a little more. In any case, we should be more aware of how even the most sophisticated and seemingly durable things we pay so much for will not be there for us in a few years, and that we should truly weigh the cost of adding more plastic and lithium to the global heap before giving in to gadget lust.

Top photo of Motorola battery by Flickr user Uwe Herrman; middle photo and teaser photo of exposed four-cell battery by Phil Gradwell; bottom photo of advanced li-ion technology by Argonne National Laboratory.

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