A Darker Shade of Green: Hazards Associated with Lithium-Ion Batteries

By Lebov, Harrison | The Journal of High Technology Law, October 2016 | Go to article overview

A Darker Shade of Green: Hazards Associated with Lithium-Ion Batteries


Lebov, Harrison, The Journal of High Technology Law


I. Introduction

Just as the invention of fire was integral to the survival of Neanderthals, Lithium-Ion ("li-ion") batteries are indispensable to Millennial. In today's modern, technology-driven world, the li-ion battery can be used to power electronic devices ranging from cell phones, to laptops, and even to cars. (1) At its most basic level, a battery is "a device that stores electrical energy," which can be transferred through an "easily controlled electro-chemical reaction" to power many of the electronic devices employed today. (2) A li-ion battery, more specifically, is a rechargeable battery, where the stored energy is depleted with use, but has the capability of being restored by plugging the battery, charger, or device into a power outlet, enabling a device to be "recharged many times over without much loss of capacity." (3) Li-ion batteries also possess a higher voltage than a standard alkaline battery, thus making li-ion batteries more advantageous. (4)

As miraculous as the lithium-ion battery may sound, that is not to say that this technological advancement does not have its drawbacks. The least of these concerns may be that extended use of li-ion batteries over time will eventually decrease the charging capacity of the battery, or decrease the amount of energy that is able to be stored in a li-ion battery, resulting in an overall decrease in the battery life of an electronic device. (5) A more sinister issue, and frankly the focus of this Note, is the danger associated with a malfunctioning li-ion battery. (6)

Overcharging and extended use of a li-ion battery can wear on the internal components of a battery, and thus make the battery susceptible to overheating. (7) When the internal components overheat, the most common result is the battery itself catching fire. (8) When a li-ion battery catches fire, contrary to popular belief, water may be ineffective in suppressing the fire, and electronics users may not have the knowledge or awareness to place the battery outside to ventilate. (9) A naive pedestrian, not knowing the complexity of the issue, is placed in excess danger when attempting to extinguish such a fire. (10) Aside from the physical hazards alone, the issue of liability remains. Is it the responsibility of the consumer to fully understand the implications of his or her use, even when the product is used as intended? Or should the onus of liability fall upon the manufacturer or company that places an unsafe product into the stream of commerce?

II. History

A. Inception and Evolution of Lithium-Ion Technology

In 2014, John Bannister Goodenough, a German physicist, was recognized by the National Academy of Engineering for his prominent role in the creation of the lithium-ion battery. (11) Goodenough's work did not start there; rather, this award stemmed from a lifetime of work beginning at England's Oxford University back in 1979 with Dr. Peter G. Dickens. (12) Thanks to their discovery, a decade later, in 1991, Sony became "the first in the world to commercialize a lithium-ion rechargeable battery, forever changing the history of mobile devices." (13) Since 1991, the market for devices powered by li-ion technology has seen an "explosive growth," namely because of a demand for portable electronic devices. (14) Perhaps this boom in demand can also be attributed to the many advantages li-ion batteries have in comparison to other forms of energy storage, including "higher energy density," "relatively low self-discharge," and "minimal upkeep." (15) For the average consumer who is not well versed in the nuances of the technology behind li-ion batteries, preference for these batteries is most likely attributed to "higher terminal voltages" (i.e. longer battery lives), plus the lightweight metal and compact size of the battery, which makes for sleeker, sexier electronics. (16)

B. Dangers Associated with Lithium-Ion Batteries

There are some aspects of li-ion battery usage that are cause for concern. …

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