Find out how to prolong battery life by using correct charge methods.
Charging and discharging batteries is a chemical reaction, but Li-ion is claimed to be the exception. Battery scientists talk about energies flowing in and out of the battery as part of ion movement between anode and cathode. This claim carries merits but if the scientists were totally right, then the battery would live forever. Scientists blame capacity fade on ions getting trapped, but as with all battery systems, internal corrosion and other degenerative effects still play a role.
The Li ion charger is a voltage-limiting device that has similarities with to the lead acid system. The difference with Li-ion lies in a higher voltage per cell, tighter voltage tolerances and the absence of trickle or float charge at full charge. While lead acid offers some flexibility in terms of voltage cut off, manufacturers of Li ion cells are very strict on the correct setting because Li-ion cannot accept overcharge. The so-called miracle charger that promises to prolong battery life and gain extra capacity with pulses and other effects does not exist. Li-ion is a “clean” system and only takes what it can absorb.
Li-ion with the traditional cathode materials of cobalt, nickel, manganese and aluminum typically charge to 4.20V/cell. The tolerance is +/–50mV/cell. Some nickel-based varieties charge to 4.10V/cell; high capacity Li-ion may go to 4/30V/cell and higher. Boosting the voltage increases capacity, but when going beyond specification, the cell deteriorates and delivers a reduced service life. More important is the safety that is being compromised when stepping beyond the limits. Figure 1 shows the voltage and current signature as lithium-ion passes through the stages for constant current and topping charge.
Figure 1: Charge stages of lithium-ion. Li-ion is fully charged when the current drops to a set level. In lieu of trickle charge, some chargers apply a topping charge when the voltage drops.
Courtesy of Cadex
The charge rate of an Energy Cell is between 0.5 and 1C; the complete charge time is about 2–3 hours. Manufacturers of these cells recommend charging at 0.8C or less to prolong battery life. Most Power Cells can take a higher charger. Charge efficiency is about 99 percent and the cell remains cool during charge.
Some Li-ion packs may experience a temperature rise of about 5ºC (9ºF) when reaching full charge. This could be due to the protection circuit and/or elevated internal resistance. Discontinue using the battery or charger if the temperature under normal charging conditions rises more than 10ºC (18ºF).
Full charge occurs when the battery reaches the voltage threshold and the current drops to three percent of the rated current. A battery is also considered fully charged if the current levels off and cannot go down further. Elevated self-discharge might be the cause of this condition.
Increasing the charge current does not hasten the full-charge state by much. Although the battery reaches the voltage peak quicker, the saturation charge will take longer accordingly. With higher current, Stage 1 is shorter but the saturation Stage 2 takes longer. A high current charge will, however, quickly fill the battery to about 70 percent.
Li-ion does not need to be fully charged as is the case with lead acid, nor is it desirable to do so. In fact, it is better not to fully charge because a high voltage stresses the battery. Choosing a lower voltage threshold, or eliminating the saturation charge altogether, prolongs battery life but this reduces the runtime. To achieve maximum runtimes, most chargers for consumer products go for maximum capacity; extended service life is perceived less important.
Some lower-cost consumer chargers may use the simplified “charge-and-run” method that charges a lithium-ion battery in one hour or less without going to the Stage 2 saturation charge. “Ready” appears when the battery reaches the voltage threshold at Stage 1. State-of-charge (SoC) at this point is about 85 percent, a level that may be sufficient for many users.
Some manufacturers set the charge threshold lower on purpose to prolong battery life. Table 2 illustrates the estimated capacities when charged to different voltage thresholds with and without saturation charge.
Capacity with full saturation
Table 2: Typical charge characteristics of lithium-ion. Adding full saturation at the set voltage boosts the capacity by about 10 percent but adds stress due to high voltage.
When the battery is first put on charge, the voltage shoots up quickly. This behavior can be compared to lifting a weight with an elastic band causing a lag. The voltage will eventually catch up when the battery is almost fully charged (Figure 3). This charge characteristic is typical of all batteries. The higher the charge current is, the larger the elastic band effect will be. Cold temperatures or charging a cell with high internal resistance amplifies the effect.
Figure 3: Capacity as a function of charge voltage on a lithium-ion battery
The capacity trails the charge voltage, like lifting a heavy weight with an elastic band.
Courtesy of Cadex
Estimating SoC by reading the voltage of a charging battery is impractical; measuring the open circuit voltage (OCV) after the battery has rested for a few hours is a better indicator. As with all batteries, temperature affects the OCV, so does the active material of Li-ion. SoC of smartphone, laptops and other devices is estimated by coulomb counting. (See BU-903: How to Measure State-of-charge.)
Li-ion cannot absorb overcharge. When fully charged the charge current must be cut off. A continuous trickle charge would cause plating of metallic lithium and compromise safety. To minimize stress, keep the lithium-ion battery at the peak cut-off as short as possible.
Once the charge is terminated, the battery voltage begins to drop, and this eases the voltage stress. Over time, the open-circuit voltage will settle to between 3.70V and 3.90V/cell. Note that a Li-ion battery that received a fully saturated charge will keep the higher voltage longer than one that did not receive a saturation charge.
If a lithium-ion battery must be left in the charger for operational readiness, some chargers apply a brief topping charge to compensate for the small self-discharge the battery and its protective circuit consume. The charger may kick in when the open-circuit voltage drops to 4.05V/cell and turn off again at 4.20V/cell. Chargers made for operational readiness, or standby mode, often let the battery voltage drop to 4.00V/cell and recharge to only 4.05V/cell instead of the full 4.20V/cell. This reduces voltage-related stress and prolongs battery life.
Some portable devices sit in a charge cradle in the on position. The current drawn through the device is called the parasitic load and can distort the charge cycle. Battery manufacturers advise against parasitic loads while charging because it induces mini-cycles, but this cannot always be avoided; a laptop connected to the AC main is such a case. The battery is being charged to 4.20V/cell and then discharged by the device. The stress level on the battery is high because the cycles occur at the voltage threshold, often also at elevated temperature.
A portable device should be turned off during charge. This allows the battery to reach the set voltage threshold and current saturation point unhindered. A parasitic load confuses the charger by depressing the battery voltage and preventing the current in the saturation stage to drop low by drawing a leakage current. A battery may be fully charged, but the prevailing conditions will prompt a continued charge, causing stress.
While the traditional lithium-ion has a nominal cell voltage of 3.60V, Li-phosphate (LiFePO) makes an exception with a nominal cell voltage of 3.20V and charging to 3.65V. Relatively new is the Li-titanate (LTO) with a nominal cell voltage of 2.40V and charging to 2.85V. (See BU-205: Types of Lithium-ion.)
Chargers for these non-cobalt-based Li-ion are not compatible with regular 3.60-volt Li-ion. Provision must be made to identify the correct systems and provide charging with the correct voltage. A 3.60-volt lithium battery in a charger designed for Li-phosphate would not receive sufficient charge; a Li-phosphate in a regular charger would cause overcharge.
Lithium-ion operates safely within the designated operating voltages; however, the battery becomes unstable if inadvertently charged to a higher than specified voltage. Prolonged charging above 4.30V on a Li-ion designed for 4.20V/cell will plate metallic lithium on the anode. The cathode material becomes an oxidizing agent, loses stability and produces carbon dioxide (CO2). The cell pressure rises and if the charge is allowed to continue, the current interrupt device (CID) responsible for cell safety disconnects at 1000–1,380kPa (145–200psi). Should the pressure rise further, a safety membrane on some Li-ion bursts open at about 3,450kPa (500psi) and the cell might eventually vent with flame.
Venting with flame is connected with elevated temperature. A fully charged battery has a lower thermal runaway temperature, or vents sooner, than one that is empty. For Li-cobalt the threshold is between 130–150ºC (266–302ºF), nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) 170–180ºC (338–356ºF) and manganese 250ºC (482ºF). Li-phosphate enjoys similar and better temperature stabilities than manganese.
Lithium-ion is not the only battery that poses a safety hazard if overcharged. Lead- and nickel-based batteries are also known to melt down and cause fire if improperly handled. Properly designed charging equipment is paramount for all battery systems and temperature sensing is a reliable watchman.
Charging lithium-ion batteries is simpler and more straight-forward than with nickel-based systems. The charge circuit is straight forward; voltage and current limitations are easier to accommodate than analyzing complex voltage signatures that change as the battery ages. The charge process can be intermittent and the battery does not need saturation, as is the case with lead acid. This offers a major advantage for renewable energy storage such as a solar panel and wind turbine. The absence of trickle charge further simplifies the charger. Equalizing charges, as is required from time-to-time with lead acid is not necessary with Li-ion.
Last updated 2015-11-05
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