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We all use portable equipment whether it be a Cell phone, a Laptop computer or a Power tool. It seems so perfectly normal to our generation yet no other generation in the history of mankind could imagine what we are doing. Given the speed with which a lot of these changes have occured, and the swiftly increasing need for power, we have not perhaps had time to fully appreciate the technology we take for granted. We also fail to understand the dangers present in some of this new technology too.
Lithium batteries have been one of the greatest achievements in portable power in the last decade; where once a black and white cellphone lasted a day at best - our new GPS enabled, full color, emailing, streaming smart phones last....well a day! But the amount of power consumed in that day is simply incredible compared to just 10 years ago.
However, these batteries come with risks that we are all guilty of ignoring. The substance used, Lithium, is highly reactive. Obviously this is one reason its so useful! However, there risks inherent with this and they are:
Water. On contact with water, lithium and H20 will create Lithium Hydroxide and Hydrogen Gas. For this reason the batteries are very tightly sealed to prevent water ingress but you as the owner should be aware of the inapparent risks incurred if you for some reason decided to wash the battery in soapy water!
Temperature or overcharging. Over heating (caused by both actual temperature or over charging) can cause what's known as Thermal Runaway and in serious circumstances can result in combustion. Now for this very reason, all lithium batteries are actually packed with safety systems which, at the most basic, prevent the cells from exceeding safe limits where possible in terms of charging and use. What they can not do is control ambient temperature. We store these batteries in drawers, garages and in the car subjecting them to extremes of temperature - on the floor of the car overnight during winter in Chicago to the car seat in Las Vegas.
Now our expectations as consumers are that these batteries are totally safe, and in essence they are. The chances of these batteries failing in one of the reasons listed above is utterly remote, in reality you are more likely to see a failure in terms of powering your equipment than you are a dangerous situation. That said, there is no logic in testing fate - this is why when you ship a lithium battery you MUST follow the rules - examples of which are easily found on sites like FedEX, UPS and the USPS.
We as consumers and users of these products have a responsibility to other's safety, just like driving a car, and as such we should be aware of the the real operating conditions. The lowest temperature of operation of an average consumer product battery is 14f (-10c) (Ever noticed how awful your digital camera battery lasts in a real cold winter?) and the maximum of 140f (60c) (on a 90 degree day, a car interior can reach that in 45 minutes). New research will extend these limits but for the moment, those are the numbers to be aware of.
Now we are absolutely not saying these batteries are dangerous, just compare using them to driving a car - in safe smart hands a wonderful tool.
Now where did I leave that spare battery...