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Lithium-Ion Battery Safety: Detection of Developing Internal Shorts

and Suppression of Thermal Runaway


Christopher McCoy, Suresh Sriramulu, Richard Stringfellow, David Ofer and Brian Barnett
TIAX LLC, 35 Hartwell Avenue, Lexington, MA, USA 02421
barnett.b@TIAXLLC.com
Abstract: Li-ion batteries are attractive for diverse
applications owing to their high energy density and power
capability. However, safety concerns are limiting their use
in important DoD applications. Among the various triggers
of thermal runaway of Li-ion cells, the internal short circuit
is the least studied but most dangerous, because it can
occur with little warning during normal cell operation.
Here we report on two exciting approaches to manage the
internal short trigger. The first is a non-invasive, chemistry
agnostic technology for detecting growing internal short
circuits. The second is a method to intervene and eliminate
thermal runaway once the internal short is detected.
Keywords: Li-ion batteries; Li-ion safety; thermal
runaway; internal short-circuits
Introduction
Li-ion batteries find use in diverse DoD applications owing
to their high energy density and power capability.
However, concerns regarding the safety of Li-ion
technology may be limiting its use in many important DoD
applications. Essentially, certain triggers can stimulate
the release of a significant amount of thermal energy in the
cell, in the worst case resulting in thermal runaway,
typically accompanied by venting of combustible vapors,
smoke, sparks, and flame.1
Among the various triggers of thermal runaway of Li-ion
cells, the internal short circuit trigger is the least studied but
most dangerous, because it can occur with little warning
with cell operation appearing normal.2 Indeed, the internal
short trigger has led to highly publicized, widespread
recalls of Li-ion battery packs used in consumer laptops. In
this type of trigger, metal particle contaminants
inadvertently introduced into the cell during manufacturing
create an internal short that grows and matures during
normal operation, and in some cases results in thermal
runaway. Even though manufacturers have installed
stringent QC measures to minimize metal particle
contaminants in cells, the continuing recalls of Li-ion
consumer batteries shows that such defects can never be
eliminated.3
TIAX has been at the forefront of research on internal short
circuits in Li-ion cells. Our research, spanning more than
seven years, has shown that the primary mechanism by
which metal particles induce internal shorts in cells is
through a stripping and plating mechanism, in which metal

particles present on the cathode of a Li-ion cell dissolve


and subsequently plate on the anode.4 Continued deposition
on the anode can result in the formation of a dendrite that
eventually grows sufficiently to contact the cathode and
short the cell. If the short resistance reaches a critical value,
the cell discharge through this internal short results in
increasing localized joule heating and temperature rise,
which then can stimulate exothermic anode and cathode
decomposition reactions. Thermal runaway ensues when
heat generation from these sources exceeds the ability of
the cell to shed the heat for a sufficiently prolonged period
of time.
TIAX is developing technologies to manage the internal
short trigger. The function of the various safety
technologies being developed at TIAX is summarized in
Figure 1. Pre-emption encompasses several technologies,
one example of which is electrolyte additives that suppress
the dissolution and plating of metals. Containment
includes, for example, approaches to prevent flaming
outside the battery pack. Specific examples of technologies
for detecting internal short circuits and for intervening to
suppress thermal runaway (following the detection) are
described in this submission.
Pre-emption
(Avoid thermal
runaway)

Detection
(Warn of
potential failure)

Intervention
(Stop thermal
runaway)

Containment
(Minimize
damage)

Fail-safe pack with minimal


impact on weight, volume,
and cost

Figure 1: Schematic summarizing the function of safety


technologies being developed at TIAX.

Challenges in Internal Short Detection


TIAX has developed approaches to deliberately induce
internal short circuits in Li-ion cells by strategic placement
of metal particles. During normal charge/discharge cycling,
appropriately placed metal particles can eventually induce
internal shorts. The resistance of such shorts initially starts
at a high value, but gradually decreases during cycling.
Figure 2 shows sample experimental data illustrating the
evolution of the internal short resistance from an implanted
metal particle during continued charge-discharge cycling.

TIAX Internal Short Detection Technologies

TIAX has developed two distinct, patent-pending


technologies to detect internal shorts in Li-ion cells. These
non-invasive, chemistry agnostic technologies are based on
strategically placed sensors and signal processing
algorithms. Both technologies have been demonstrated on a
wide range of cell sizes from small cells (e.g., 18650 cells
with capacity < 2.8 Ah) to large cells (e.g., ~75 Ah), and
over the temperature range of -30C to 55C. The two
technologies require significantly different implementation
approaches, and provide different pack-level benefits.

1000
4
2

100
4
2

10

250

300

350

400

Test Time, hours


Figure 2: Representative experimental data of the
evolution of the internal short resistance in a Li-ion cell
with an implanted metal particle during normal
charge/discharge cycling. The resistance of the short
starts high, but decreases with cycling.

Detecting such shorts (for example when the resistance is


100) is not possible with conventional BMU monitoring
employed today. Figure 3 shows the normal voltage and
current measured during charge and discharge of an 18650 cell
with a surrogate 100 short. As can be seen by comparing the
top and bottom graphs, there is no noticeable difference in the
curves indicating the presence of the 100 internal short
circuit. In addition, any approach to directly interrogate the cell
will only measure the cells internal impedance, which is more
than three orders of magnitude lower (e.g., 50m for a typical
18650 cell) than that of the surrogate short.
4.2
3

Voltage, V

3.8

Voltage
Current

3.6
3.4

Normal Charge,
Discharge Cycle
(No Surrogate Short)

3.2
3.0

Current, |A|

4.0

400

450

500

550

600

650

Test Time, min


4.2
3

Voltage, V

3.8

Voltage
Current

3.6
3.4

Charge, Discharge
Cycle with 100 ohm
Surrogate Short

3.2
3.0

Current, |A|

4.0

0
1900

2000

2100

15

10

56 ohm

100 ohm

200 ohm

400 ohm

750 ohm

Figure 4: Experimental data showing the sensitivity of a


detection system to the internal short resistance.

0
350

Experimental data for one of the two technologies is shown


in Figure 4. For this experiment, surrogate internal shorts
were used. The magnitude of the surrogate short resistance
was separately tuned, and the detection system output was
monitored. The results show that a 100 short can be easily
detected, with excellent signal-to-noise ratio. For context,
prior simulation work at TIAX showed that internal short
resistance less than 4 was needed to cause thermal
runaway under the test conditions. Therefore, the detection
technology can infer the presence of the internal short, even
when the short is 25 times weaker than the critical value
and poses no thermal runaway risk. The time to detection
of these surrogate shorts was less than 20 s.

Detection Output

Short Resistance,

2200

Test Time, min

Figure 3: Experimental data for 18650 cell without (top)


and with (bottom) 100 surrogate internal short.
Conventional voltage and current monitoring cannot infer
the presence of such a high resistance internal short
circuit.

This internal short detection technology is versatile. It can


be applied to any chemistry, and configured for any battery
pack. The implementation of this technology requires only
minimum modifications to the Battery Management Unit
(BMU). It can be implemented with minimal cost impact
because only a few additional inexpensive components are
needed in addition to the standard components in the
battery pack. This technology is presently being adapted for
a large-format cell-pack for a major automotive OEM.
Intervention to suppress thermal runaway
For internal shorts that are detected early, a number of
technical approaches are available to suppress thermal
runaway. Here we describe one example; an experimentally
verified approach of increasing the external heat transfer
rates to suppress thermal runaway.

Test cell

800
700
Live Cell

500

Dead Cell

2.5

400

Live Cell
Voltage

1.5

300
200

Cell Voltage (V)

3.5

600

0.5

100
0
0

400

800

1200

-0.5
1600

Time (s)

Figure 6: Experimental thermal runaway data generated


in the wind tunnel with the heater method. The cells
employed for this experiment were 18650 cells fabricated
at TIAX. The heater power dissipation was set to 10 W
and the heat transfer coefficient was set to 12 W/m2-K.

Such experimental data were also used to validate an FEA


model for simulating thermal runaway of Li-ion cells. The
model, which has been described in detail in ref. [1],
includes measured cell dimensions, physical properties of
cell components, and models for the kinetics of heat release
from anode and cathode decomposition reactions. The
model is able to match experimental measurements, as is
illustrated in Figure 7.
900
800

50
Temperature (oC)

Heat Transfer Coefficient (W/m2-oC)

Reference
cell

the dead cells temperature does not increase as rapidly,


and cools down once the heater power is turned off at 900s.
Cell Surface Temperature (C)

Simulation and experimental work at TIAX has shown that


the heat transfer environment plays a crucial role in
dictating whether or not thermal runaway results from an
internal short circuit.5 We constructed a wind tunnel that
was mounted in a fume hood for thermal runaway
experiments, such that the surface heat transfer coefficient
can be controlled by adjusting the velocity of air flow over
the cell. Figure 5 shows a photograph of the wind tunnel
and below the photograph, representative experimental heat
transfer coefficient data. The wind tunnel includes a
chamber with transparent plexiglass windows. The
chamber houses a test 18650 cell (fully charged to 4.2 V)
and a reference 18650 cell (fully discharged). A miniature
hole is drilled at the bottom of each cell and a heater (rated
to 30 W) is inserted. The heater power can be
independently controlled and simulates localized heat
dissipation from an internal short circuit. The external heat
transfer coefficient is controlled by manipulating the flow
rate of air over the cells.

40
30
20
10
0

700
600
Simulation
results

500
400

Experimetal
data

300
200
100

Centerline Air Velocity (m/s)

Figure 5: Photograph of the wind tunnel used for thermal


runaway experiments (top) and measured surface heat
transfer coefficient data (bottom) as a function of air flow
rate in the wind tunnel.

Example thermal runaway data generated in the wind


tunnel are shown in Figure 6. 18650 cells fabricated at
TIAX were used for this experiment. From time t = 0 to t
=~700s, the temperature of the test cell and dead cell
increase because of internal heating by the heater. However
at around 700s, the voltage of the test cell (which is fully
charged) dropped to zero and it experienced a violent
thermal runaway with the cell surface temperature
exceeding 700C in a very short period of time. In contrast,

0
0

500

1000

1500

2000

Time (s)

Figure 7: Comparison of cell surface temperatures from


thermal runaway experiment (from Figure 6) and
simulation results. Only one adjustable parameter was
used for the simulation results.

Using the same experimental set-up, we evaluated whether


it would be possible to suppress thermal runaway by
increasing the external heat transfer coefficient. Figure 8
shows results from these experiments. Two separate
experiments were conducted using the heater method with
initially identical heat transfer coefficient of 12 W/m2-K.
Figure 8 shows the 18650 live cell temperature data for the

two experiments. In the first experiment, the heat transfer


rate was held constant (solid line) in one experiment, the
cell experienced thermal runaway at ~800s. In the second
experiment (dashed line), the heat transfer coefficient was
increased by a factor of five to 50 W/m2-K when the cell
surface temperature exceeded 130C, and this cell did not
experience thermal runaway even though the heater
continued to dissipate heat within the cell. This
experimental result, which matched our model predictions,
shows that it is possible to kill thermal runaway by
controlling the external heat transfer coefficient, illustrating
the value of internal short circuit detection technology.
200

Thermal
runaway
occurred at
this point

Temperature (oC)

160

h increased to
50 W/m2-K

120

companies. At TIAX, we are developing a wide range of


technologies to manage the internal short trigger. Here we
reported on two exciting technologies a non-invasive,
chemistry- and cell-size-independent technology to detect
internal short circuits, and an approach to kill thermal
runaway by controlling the external heat transfer
coefficient. The internal short circuit detection technology
is being presently adapted for large-format cells on behalf
of a major automotive OEM.
TIAXs internal short detection technologies and
intervention approaches can be combined to significantly
improve the safety profile of Li-ion battery packs,
especially for DoD applications.
Acknowledgements
We gratefully acknowledge funding from the US
Department of Energy for the thermal runaway
experiments and simulations reported here.

80
1

40

h = 12 W/m2-K
0
0

400

800

1200

Time (s)

Figure 8: Experimental data showing suppression of


thermal runaway by judiciously increasing the external
heat transfer coefficient just prior to thermal runaway. Two
experiments were conducted with the heater method using
18650 cells. The live cell temperatures for these
experiments are shown here.

Summary
The internal short circuit trigger of thermal runaway is not
managed today, but has resulted (and is continuing to
result) in major battery recalls in consumer electronics and
vehicle applications. Internal short circuits can never be
completely eliminated, even given significant advances in
quality control methods employed by the battery

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2
J. Zhang, Li-Ion in EDV and Safety Perspectives, 28th
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2011
3
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2012
4
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Las Vegas, NV, 2012
5
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