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?


Motorola battery, opened and laid on its side

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.

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