Battery users and entrepreneurs often ask, “Can batteries be restored?” The answer is, “It depends.” Most battery failures are permanent and cannot be repaired, but there are exceptions. Sulfation on lead acid batteries can be removed if caught in time; crystalline formation, also known as “memory,” on nickel-cadmium can be dissolved through deep-cycling. Read more about Memory: Myth or Fact?, and “sleeping” lithium-ion packs can be boosted if they have been over-discharged. Read more about Safety circuits for modern batteries.
Permanent battery defects include high internal resistance, elevated self-discharge, electrical short and capacity fade. Poorly designed chargers, exposure to excess heat, harsh charge and discharge cycles, and inappropriate storage contribute to early aging. Let’s examine the cause of these non-correctable battery problems and explore what we can do to minimize them.
A manufacturer cannot predict the exact capacity when a battery comes off the production line, and this is especially true with lead acid batteries that involve manual assembly. Fully automated cell production in “clean rooms” also causes performance differences, and as part of quality control, each cell is measured and segregated into categories according to their inherent capacity levels. The high-capacity A-cells are reserved for special applications and sold at premium prices; the large mid-range B-group goes to commercial and industrial markets; and the low-grade C-cells may end up as consumer products in department stores. Cycling will not significantly improve the capacity of the low-end cell, and even though the cell may look good, the buyer must be aware of differences in capacity and quality, which often translate into life expectancy.
Matching of cells according to capacity is important, especially for industrial batteries. No perfect match is possible, and if slightly off, nickel-based cells adapt to each other after a few charge/discharge cycles similar to the players on a winning sports team. High-quality cells continue to perform longer than the lower-quality counterpart, and the cells degrade at a more even and controlled rate. Lower-grade cells, on the other hand, diverge more quickly with use and time, and failures due to cell mismatch are more widespread. Cell mismatch is a common cause of failure in industrial batteries. Manufacturers of professional power tools and medical equipment are careful in the choice of cells to attain good battery reliability and long life.
Let’s look at what a weak cell does in a pack that is strung together with strong ones. The weak cell holds less capacity and is discharged more quickly than the strong brothers. Going empty first, the strong brothers overrun this feeble sibling and the resulting current on a continued discharge pushes the weak cell into reverse polarity. Nickel-cadmium can tolerate a reverse voltage of minus 0.2V and a reverse current of a few milliamps, but exceeding this level will cause a permanent electrical short. On charge, the weak cell reaches full charge first and it goes into heat-generating over-charge while the strong brothers still accept charge and stay cool. The low cell experiences a disadvantage on both charge and discharge. It continues to weaken until finally giving up the struggle.
The capacity tolerance between cells in an industrial battery should be +/– 2.5 percent. High-voltage packs designed for heavy loads and wide adverse temperature ranges should have lower tolerances. There is a strong correlation between cell balance and longevity.
Li-ion cells share similar deficiencies with nickel-based systems and need management. The mandatory protection circuit supervises the serially connected cells by clamping the voltage when exceeding 4.25 and 4.35V on charge, and disconnecting the pack from discharge when the weakest cell drops to between 2.50 and 2.80V/cell. This prevents the stronger cells from pushing the depleted cell into reverse polarization. The protection circuit acts like a guardian angel that shields the weaker siblings from being bullied by the stronger brothers. This may be help to explain why Li-ion packs for power tools last longer than nickel-based batteries, which normally do not have a protection circuit.
The capacity of quality Li-ion cells is consistent and the self-discharge is low. A problem arises when the cells exhibit a discrepancy in self-discharge. This can be attributed to lower-quality cells or high-temperature spots in a large automotive battery, which hastens aging. Balancing is required and there are two methods: Passive balancing bleeds the high-voltage cells; active balancing shuttles the extra charge from higher-voltage cells to the lower-voltage cells without burning the energy. Active balancing is the preferred method on EVs.
With use and time all batteries become mismatched, and this also applies to lead acid. Shorted cells and those having high self-discharge are a common cause of cell imbalance and lead to subsequent failure. Manufacturers of golf cars, aerial work platforms, floor scrubbers and other battery-powered vehicles recommend an equalizing charge of 3–4 hours if the voltage difference between the cells is greater than +/– 0.10V, or if the specific gravity varies more than 10 points (0.010 on the SG scale). An equalizing charge is a charge on top of a charge that brings all cells to full-charge saturation. This service must be administered with care because excessive charging can harm the battery. A difference in specific gravity of 40 points poses a performance problem and the cell is considered defective. A 40-point difference is one cell having an SG of 1.200 and another 1.240. A charge may temporarily cover the deficiency, but the flaw will resurface after a few hours of rest due to high self-discharge.
Manufacturers are at a loss to explain why some cells develop high electrical leakage or a short while still new. The culprit might be foreign particles that contaminate the cells during manufacture, or rough spots on the plates that damage the delicate separator. Clean rooms, improved quality control at the raw material level, and minimal human handling during the manufacturing process have reduced the “infant mortality rate.”
Applying momentary high-current bursts to repair a shorted NiCd or NiMH cell has been tried but offers limited success. The short may temporarily evaporate but the damage in the separator remains. After service, the repaired cell may charge normally and reach correct voltages; however, high self-discharge will likely drain the battery and the short will return.
It is not advised to replace a shorted cell in an aging pack because of cell matching. The new cell will always be stronger than the others. Consider the biblical verses: “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined” (Mark 2:21, 22 NIV). Replacing faulty cells often leads to battery failures within six months. It’s best not to disturb the cells. Instead, allow them to age naturally as an intact family.
Shorts or high leakage in a Li-ion cell are uncommon. If this occurs, the cell becomes unstable and a massive amount of power can dissipate, leading to a possible venting thermal breakdown. Such a leak can be compared to drilling a small pinhole into a high-pressure gas pipeline and holding a match to it. The resulting explosion could rupture the pipe. Similarly, the rushing current in the cell heats up the tiny malfunction, causes a major leak and releases all energy within seconds. (Read more about Safety circuits for modern batteries)
Cell disintegration caused by internal disturbances lies outside the safeguarding ability of the protection circuit. Most cell failures occur when the battery has been damaged by shock and vibration, has been overcharged or has been overheated. Li-ion cells for electric powertrains and demanding industrial applications use a heavy-duty separator to reduce the risk of an electrical short. These batteries are larger than consumer-type packs. Saying that Li-ion has twice the energy density of NiCd can be a misnomer; some long-lasting Li-ion cells have a specific energy as low as 60Wh/kg, the same as NiCd.
|Caution:||Applying a high current burst works best with nickel-based batteries. Do not use this method for lithium-ion cells.|
The loss of electrolyte in a flooded lead acid battery occurs through gassing, as hydrogen escapes during charging and discharging. Venting causes the electrolyte to become more concentrated and the balance must be restored by adding clean water. Do not add electrolyte, as this would upset the specific gravity and shorten battery life through excessive corrosion.
Permeation, or loss of electrolyte in sealed lead acid batteries, is a recurring problem that is often caused by overcharging. Careful adjustment of charging and float voltages, as well as operating at moderate temperatures, reduces this failure. Replenishing lost liquid in VRLA batteries by adding water has limited success. Although the lost capacity can often be regained with a catalyst, tampering with the cells turns the stack into a high-maintenance project that needs constant supervision.
Nickel-based batteries can lose electrolyte through venting due to excessive pressure during extreme charge or discharge. After repeated venting, the spring-loaded seal of the cells may not seal properly again, and the deposit of white powder around the seal opening is evidence of this. Losses of electrolyte may also occur as part of faulty manufacturing. Dry-up conditions result in a “soft” cell, a defect that cannot be corrected. On charge, the voltage of a “dry” cell goes high because the battery has no clamping action and does not draw current.
A properly designed and correctly charged lithium-ion cell should not generate gases, nor should it lose electrolyte through venting. In spite of what advocates have said, lithium-based cells can build up an internal pressure under certain conditions, and a bloated pouch cell is proof of this. Read more about The Pouch Cell. Some cells include an electrical switch that opens if the cell pressure reaches a critical level. Others feature a membrane that releases gases. Many of these safety features are one-way only, meaning that once activated, the cell becomes inoperable. This is done for safety reasons.