BU-306: What is the Function of the Separator?

The building blocks of a battery are the cathode and anode, and these two electrodes are isolated by a separator. The separator is moistened with electrolyte and forms a catalyst that promotes the movement of ions from cathode to anode on charge and in reverse on discharge. Ions are atoms that have lost or gained electrons and have become electrically charged. Although ions pass freely between the electrodes, the separator is an isolator with no electrical conductivity.

The small amount of current that may pass through the separator is self-discharge and this is present in all batteries to varying degrees. Self-discharge eventually depletes the charge of a battery during prolonged storage. Figure 1 illustrates the building block of a lithium-ion cell with the separator and ion flow between the electrodes.

Charge Discharge

Figure 1. Ion flow through the separator of Li-ion. Battery separators provide a barrier between the anode (negative) and the cathode (positive) while enabling the exchange of lithium ions from one side to the other.

Early batteries were flooded, including lead acid and nickel-cadmium. With the development of the sealed nickel-cadmium in 1947 and the maintenance-free lead acid in the 1970s, the electrolyte is absorbed into a porous separator that is compressed against the electrodes to achieve chemical reaction. The tightly wound or stacked separator/electrode arrangement forms a solid mechanical unit that offers similar performance to the flooded type but is smaller and can be installed in any orientation without leakage. The gases created during charge are absorbed and there is no water loss if venting can be prevented.

Early separators were made of rubber, glass fiber mat, cellulose and polyethylene plastic. Wood was the original choice but it deteriorated in the electrolyte. Nickel-based batteries use separators of porous polyolefin films, nylon or cellophane. The absorbed glass mat (AGM) in the sealed lead acid version uses a glass fiber mat as a separator that is soaked in sulfuric acid.

The earlier gelled lead acid developed in the 1970s converts the liquid electrolyte into a semi-stiff paste by mixing the sulfuric acid with a silica-gelling agent. Gel and AGM batteries have slight differences in performance; gel batteries are commonly used in UPS and AGM in starter and deep-cycle applications. (See BU-201: How does the Lead Acid Battery Work?)

Commercially available Li-ion cells use polyolefin as a separator. This material has excellent mechanical properties, good chemical stability and is low-cost. A polyolefin is a class of polymer that is produced from olefin by polymerizing olefin ethylene. Ethylene comes from a petrochemical source; polyolefin is made from polyethylene, polypropylene or laminates of both materials.

The Li-ion separator must be permeable and the pore size ranges from 30 to 100nm. (Nm stands for nano-meter, 10-9, which is one millionth of a millimeter or about 10 atoms thick.) The recommended porosity is 30–50 percent. This holds enough liquid electrolyte and enables the pores to close should the cell overheat.

Separator serves as fuse in Li-ion

On excessive heat, a shut-down occurs by closing the pores of the Li-ion separator through a melting process. The polyethylene (PE) separator melts when the core reaches 130°C (266°F). This stops the transport of ions, effectively shutting the cell down. Without this provision, heat in the failing cell could rise to the thermal runaway threshold and vent with flame. This internal safety fuse also helps pass the stringent UN Transportation Testing for Lithium Batteries that includes altitude simulation, as well as thermal, vibration, shock, external short circuit, impact, overcharge and forced discharge tests. (See BU-304a: Safety Concerns with Li-ion.)

Most batteries for mobile phones and tablets have a single polyethylene separator. Since ca. 2000, larger industrial batteries deploy a trilayered separator that provides enhanced fuse protection on thermal extremes and on multi-cell configurations. Figure 2 illustrates the PP/PE/PP trilayer separator consisting of polyethylene in the middle that is sandwiched by outer polypropylene (PP) layers. While the inner PE layer shuts down at 130°C by closing the pores, the outer PP layers stay solid and do not melt until reaching 155°C (311°F).

Figure 2: Side view of PP/PE/PP trilayer. 
Combining separator material with different melting properties adds to safety. PE melts before PP to close the pores and stop current flow.  

Source: Dalhousie, Handbook of Batteries

In ca. 2008, further improvements were made by adding a ceramic-coated separator. Ceramic particles do not melt and this addition provides a further safety level. Ceramic coating is also used on lithium cobalt oxide (LCO) cells that charge up to 4.40V/cell instead of the traditional 4.20V/cell. The ceramic coating works in tandem with the PE and PP layers and is placed next to the positive side to prevent electrical contact.

The separator should be as thin as possible so as to not add dead volume and still provide sufficient tensile strength to prevent stretching during the winding process and offer good stability throughout life. The pores must be uniformly spread on the sheet to ensure even distribution throughout the entire separator area. Furthermore, the separator must be compatible with the electrolyte and allow easy wetting. Dry areas can create hot spots through elevated resistance, leading to cell failure.

Separators are getting thinner. A thickness of 25.4μm (1.0 mil) is common but some go down to 20μm, 16μm and now even 12μm without significantly compromising the properties of the cell. (One micron, also known as µm, is one millionth of a meter.) The separator with electrolyte in modern Li-ion only makes up 3 percent of the cell content.

Ultrathin separators raise safety concerns. The massive Sony call-back comes to mind in which a one-in-200,000 cell-breakdown triggered an almost six million recall of Li-ion packs. On rare occasions, microscopic metal particles came into contact with other parts of the battery cell, which led to an electrical short circuit. The Sony cells in question had a separator thickness of between 20µm and 25µm. (A micrometer (µm) is one-thousands of a millimeter.) Some separators are as thin as 10 µm. Micro-shorts on separators examined in forensic labs measure about a millimetre in diameter. A well-designed separator melts at the point of shorting and provides a local shutdown.

Last updated 2019-01-08

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Comments (13)

On February 20, 2015 at 7:35am
Douglas wrote:

Who is using Trylayer PE resin? We have this kind of resin from Asahi.

On April 11, 2016 at 8:33pm
Zeeshan Chaudhry wrote:

Hey there, I’m a university student doing a design project on batteries. Where can I get cellophane? Or any of these separators for that matter in large quantities?

On January 5, 2017 at 4:41pm
Mauro wrote:

Fig. 2 caption reads “Side view of PP/PR/PP trilayer”; I believe there is a typo and it should read “PP/PE/PP”.

On August 18, 2017 at 9:49am
PAUL Renken wrote:

Can such polyethylene seperators be used in other products such as building cladding or with boron as a fire retardent in layered composites?

On September 3, 2017 at 10:55pm
Noo wrote:

I have heared that there is a drawback and side effect when using electrical conductive particles like CNT s or graghen in separators(sth about self discharging). unfortunately I couldnt find any dis advantage. could you please guide me?

On September 13, 2017 at 12:37am
hasan wrote:

I would appreciate anyone help me about following question: what is difference between agm separator for different application such as : solar, Ev, ups, motorcycle and start-stop?

On September 22, 2017 at 1:11pm
Mo wrote:

Hi. Today, the battery on my ebike (a lithium i-on 36V / 17.5Ah 650Wh)  fell off when I was riding my bike and it no longer works. I contacted the ebike dealer and he tells me that these batteries have a safety impact device which shuts down the battery down following an impact. He further says that the battery will start to work again in a few days. Is he correct?

On November 14, 2017 at 6:05pm
Gerald wrote:

Other than volumetric energy density, is there a reason one could not eliminate the separator and hold the anode/cathodes in separate compartments for a flow-type Li-ion battery system? Diffusion might be a problem but shorting would no longer be an issue.

On December 5, 2017 at 1:39am
Gowthami wrote:

Hi, I want to know if cellulose used as separators in lead-acid batteries. If any hydrolysis of cellulose occurs.

On February 24, 2018 at 11:35pm
Leon Paul Reyna wrote:

It is time to completely redesign the battery. Basic battery design has remained static for decades. True new materials are being used yet the basic design still endures. In my analysis of the most pressing problem with rechargeable lithium batteries is the destructive formation of topical dendrites that degrade and ultimately short circuit said battery.  In redesigning the battery I believe that movable battery components and the use of a new form of cellulose would solve the persistent problems plaguing lithium batteries. The approach would allow routine maintenance on batteries so as to extend their life and extend their peak power capabilities.  Yet time and again companies are too terrified about trying anything new so this repetitive pattern of using inferior designed batteries may persist for decades unless people are willing to try new designs. The two basic changes aforementioned are just the tip of the new changes needing to be made to the current battery design. It my hope that I find interested parties to collaborate on new designs so as to perfect them and change the industry.

On June 26, 2018 at 3:07pm
Hans wrote:

I would appreciate any one who can help me to know: can I recycle battery pe separator (30%UHMW and 60%Amorphous silica)?

On December 22, 2018 at 5:53am
Doug Patterson wrote:

7th para, a nanometer is 10^-9 meters not one millionth (10^-6 M), correct?

On March 9, 2019 at 5:23pm
Donald Taylor wrote:

Just one question. I’m making my own carbon foam from bread. It is possible to make various shapes and to control the porosity of the material. My question is can the electrolyte be absorbed into the carbon foam and thus do away with having a separator. Would it be possible to make a carbon to carbon battery this way. My third question is can a metal powder be fused onto the carbon as the collector plate. I’m new to all this but have been doing my own r and r to try to make a fully green battery that can can be easily disposed of with no harm to the environment. What about using a bio-plastic doped with an electrolyte that could be sprayed on to the outside of the carbon. Lots of questions I know. Just a novice here. Thanks.