Batteries – subject of UL’s decades-long safety research – are key to a modern lifestyle as well as to today’s energy portfolio
A crucial component of many modern conveniences, from medical devices to industrial machines, batteries also help to power other facets of modern life, including the critical electric distribution system.
Today, two-thirds of electricity production comes from fossil fuel burning, with another fifth coming from nuclear power, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Yet the environmental hazards produced by these means, along with the finite supply of fuel for these technologies, means the production of power for the electric grid must be increasingly produced by sustainable energy sources.
Nature’s changeability means there will always be fluctuations in the energy produced by these sustainable methods at any given time, with production rates that bear little relation to societal electricity demands. Developing better ways of efficiently harnessing water, solar and wind power will always be a priority, but the reliability of renewable energy sources must be supported by the increased use of batteries and storage strategies.
Batteries Can Sustain Sustainable Energy
Batteries optimize the management of electricity generated from sustainable energy sources. Because the demand for energy and its production vary significantly and independently over time, the efficient operation of the electric grid depends on adequately supplying electricity from non-primary sources to meet ever-changing demand instantly.
Power storage in batteries serves a two-fold purpose for solar energy systems. By storing energy, batteries can supplement photovoltaic cells during a peak demand period and can bolster electric output at night or at other times sunlight is blocked.
The same is true for wind power. Batteries capture and retain excess power when the wind is strong but power demand is weak, then make it available for mid-day peak periods.
Batteries should increasingly play a life-saving role when disaster strikes and the electric supply is disrupted or cut entirely. Hospital administrators have long known this and back up their facilities with adequate battery power to provide power to life-sustaining medical equipment in case of power failure.
Energy Storage Technology Must Advance
Currently, lithium-ion battery technology is the most diversified and commonly used in many ways, most familiarly in the electronic devices we all have. Along with the improvement of lithium-ion technology, batteries types of many different chemistries, configurations and adaptations are being developed simultaneously.
The capacity and efficiency of battery storage must continue to develop because our knowledge still has not caught up to society’s goals. And we know that the development of any technology can lead to unintended consequences and new safety risks, particularly when these advances are fully integrated into everyday life, and battery technology is no different.
As battery storage technologies continue to progress to capabilities only imagined today, particularly to buttress the development of sustainable energy, insuring their safe and reliable use must always be a central component of that advance. Third-party research and testing is a crucial way manufacturers can develop and build batteries safely for use in emerging applications.
Focus on lithium-ion battery technologies
The popularity of lithium-ion batteries has surged in recent years. The batteries, often called LiB, are rechargeable, and have a higher energy capacity, thus allowing on-the-go consumers to keep using devices without replacing the batteries or frequently charging them. Generally, Lithium-ion batteries are safe, failing on the order of one in 10 million.
But as the demand for LiBs has grown, so too have the safety concerns, though incidents remain rare. Recent news about hoverboards catching fire has brought the issue of battery safety into the spotlight again for the general public.
For more than a decade, UL has dedicated an entire team to researching the broad issues that affect the safety of LiBs to help manufacturers and the broader industry better understand how to reduce the number of unsafe incidents.
Inherently, these batteries are extremely complex, said Carl Wang from UL, one of many UL researchers whose work is devoted to the safety science of LiB technology. “A systematic and scientific approach has to be taken to address the safety of lithium-ion battery,” Wang said.
Wang and his team are focused on the material science of lithium-ion batteries. While other UL teams test individual batteries for compliance with standards, his team is focused on understanding the broad concepts of LiB safety.
“We are undertaking a fundamental study on lithium-ion battery safety,” Wang said. “We look at why a lithium-ion battery fails.” UL’s team is filling an important need in the marketplace, as this research is expensive and cost-prohibitive for many manufacturers to do on their own. “We have more advanced testing and analytical equipment than many manufacturers have,” Wang said. “As a result, we can help them figure out why the battery failed, and the potential safety risks of their battery, which helps them in their overall design process.”
In many ways, the process for these tests looks very similar to the testing done to certify batteries for standards compliance. The UL team puts the battery under a series of stress tests and customizes environmental, mechanical and electrical conditions to stress the batteries according to their applications.
But instead of giving batteries a pass/fail report, the UL team seeks to identify the possible failure mechanisms, allowing the manufacturers to go back and embed safety features into their designs.
The demand for lithium-ion batteries will likely grow along with the proliferation of new mobile technologies. As a result, the UL teams will continue their specialized research into advancing the safety of these important energy sources.
To talk with someone from UL about our work with batteries, or to learn more about our lithium-ion battery testing, please visit us at HANNOVER MESSE 16 in Hall 9/ Stand H79, or Hall 6/Stand K01. You can request an appointment at EMAIL FOR APPOINTMENTS HERE. Online, please visit ul.com/batteries or contact.ul.com/contact-ul-energy for a service quote.