Why Electronics' Batteries Degrade Overtime | What Can You Do To Prevent This

Why Electronics' Batteries Degrade Overtime | What Can You Do To Prevent This
One thing that everyone absolutely hates about their electronic gadgets is having to charge them every once in a while.

A lot of you must have also noticed that you have to charge your gadgets more frequently as they get old. This is something called battery degradation.

While it can not really be called a problem because it has to with the way these batteries work and the materials used in making them.

Most gadgets today, contain either Lithium-ion batteries or Lithium-polymer batteries. Lithium-ion being the more common one among the two.

Difference Between Li-ion And Li-po Batteries

Li-on and Li-po batteries are not very different from each other, the only significant difference between them is of the electrolyte between the two electrodes of the batteries.

While the Li-ion batteries have a liquid electrolyte, Li-po batteries either have a solid or a semi-solid(gel) electrolyte between the electrodes.

Which One Is Better?

Both Li-ion and Li-po batteries have their own pros and cons.

Li-ion batteries have a higher energy density than Li-po batteries, they are also cheaper. But as Li-ion batteries use a liquid electrolyte, they are a bit dangerous than Li-po batteries.

Li-ion batteries need to be rigid, if they are folded or played around with then they can catch fire, this can be due to the electrolyte being leaked, or the electrodes coming in contact with each other, etc.

On the other hand, a gel-like electrolyte in Li-po batteries makes them more flexible, stable, and safe. But the cons to these batteries are that they are a bit more expensive to manufacture, have less energy density, and have a shorter life.

The bottom line here is that Li-ion batteries are better in terms of performance, therefore, are more widely used.

But we see both of these batteries in different electronics. The companies that want to make their electronics safer and more repairable, use Li-po. This could be applicable to electronics that are meant for the long term, as Li-po batteries don't live as long and might need more frequent replacing.

Whereas, in short-term electronics, like smartphones, battery performance is prioritized and Li-ion batteries are used. Smartphones are also pretty rigid, so, there are not as many safety hazards as well, at least as long as repairs are not involved.

Now, to understand degradation, we have to first understand how these batteries work.

How Lithium Batteries Work

Lithium batteries are made up of three components, a Lithium Cobalt oxide cathode, a graphite anode, and an electrolyte between them. The anode releases electrons, which then move to the cathode, this flow of electrons is what generates power.

These electrons leave positive ions in the anode, which then move to the cathode to find electrons and become stable again. At this point, the battery is discharged. When you charge the batteries, these ions are forced to move back to the anode and one full charge cycle is completed. 

While this process seems to be perpetual in theory, batteries still wear with time, use, and external factors like heat. After every cycle, the materials of the anode and the cathode degrade. This is what causes the batteries to degrade over time.

This degradation can take place even when the gadget is just stored and not at all used, that's just how these batteries are. These batteries can lose around 20% of their total capacity in a year, even when not used. Add a bit of heat to the equation and this number can go up to 30%.

What You Can Do To Prevent Degradation

First of all, let me get this cleared, you can't prevent battery degradation. It is the nature of these batteries to degrade and nothing can be done to really stop this. But what you can definitely do is to slow down this degradation.

Avoid Going To 0% Then To 100%

As batteries have two electrodes, at 0% or at 100%, all the charges are at either of the electrodes. This is quite unstable as compared to when your battery is at around 50%. 

At around 50%, the charges are pretty much equally present on both electrodes, this is when the battery is the most stable, which means, that is where it would live the longest at. So, ideally, you should keep your battery at around 50%, but that won't be realistic. So, a range for you to keep your device in is from around 30% to around 70%.

There is another way in which letting your battery get to 0% can affect its health. At 0%, the voltage difference between the charger and the battery is the highest, as the battery charges, the difference gets smaller and smaller.

Now, high voltage is actually really bad for the battery and when it goes down to 0%, it spends more time under that high voltage while charging than it would've if you plugged it in at around 30%.

Avoid Heat

Heat is another factor that is really bad for batteries, similar to voltage, heat puts stress on the battery and accelerates degradation. The ideal temperature range for batteries is 25°C to 30°C.

A battery kept in at the ideal temperatures would retain around 80% of its total capacity after about one year of typical use. This number could fall down to about 60% if you increase the temperature by 10°C.

The point here is that you should avoid situations that could make your phone heat up, and not keep your phone in places that it would become hot in.

Some examples of these are; keeping your phone under the pillow, keeping it in direct sunlight, like on the dashboard of your car, etc. Charging your phone in such situations could make things even worse as that would make your phone heat up even more.

Fast charging is also something that some people believe could make your battery degrade faster. That is because, the voltage is higher when you use a fast charger, but if it adds to battery degradation or not is a bit of a controversial topic. Read about it here.

Avoid Idle Charging

Idle charging here refers to keeping your device still plugged in when it has reached 100%, this is bad due to several reasons. But let me first put aside the overcharging myth.

You might have heard people say that charging your phone overnight is not good because that could overcharge your battery, but that is not true. Your phone is smart, it stops charging when it reaches 100%. Hence, this is called the overcharging myth.

Now, your phone does stop charging after reaching 100%, but that doesn't mean that the charger is completely inactive. Chargers have something called "trickle charging" built into them, this allows the charger to charge your device at a really slow rate.

Trickle charging only takes place when your device is at 100%, it basically charges the battery at the same rate that it discharges at. This keeps your device at 100% until you plug it out.

The problems with idle charging are;

First, as I have mentioned above, 100% and 0% are the two most unstable levels for a battery. Image how much the degradation is going to speed up when your battery is kept at 100% for hours.

Second, the voltage provided by the charger is higher when your battery is about to be fully charged, same is the case with trickle charging, when your battery is at 100%, it is at its highest voltage. Hence, the voltage provided by the charger needs to be higher in order for the current to flow. Again, high voltage is something that is really bad for the battery as mentioned above, and in this case, the battery might spend hours under high voltage.

Third, it could generate heat. There is no denying that charging a battery can cause it to heat up, this is a common thing. This heat is generated by the flow of current, and even when a device is fully charged, it still draws current. This again puts stress on the battery and speeds up the degradation.

Idle charging causes everything that I have mentioned above, which is bad for a battery. Hence, it should be a big no if you want to increase the life of your devices' batteries.

Avoid Using Your Device While Charging

Using a device while it is charging means that the battery is being charged and discharged at a high rate at the same time. This simultaneous charging and discharging puts a lot of stress on the battery and is really bad for Lithium batteries in the long run.

This largely applies to doing heavy tasks like gaming or watching videos. With stressing the battery, it also causes the device to heat up, and as we already know, heat isn't good.

This is a bit of a contentious point though, as some people say that when using your phone while it's charging, the phone draws the majority of its power from the charger and not the battery, while this reduces the charging speed, it does not harm the battery itself.

On the other hand, some people say that this distorts the charging cycle of the battery by creating mini-cycles, which means that some parts of the battery charge slower than the whole cell. Yes, it sounds as confusing to me as it does to you. Besides, there is no evidence to back this up.

Since the former argument seems more believable and sounds like something that giant companies would do in their smartphones, and also because the latter argument lacks evidence, I go with that.

While this might not be a problem for phones, it still is a problem for other devices that use Lithium batteries. An example of this would be electric vehicles. First of all, you can't really use an electric vehicle while it's charging, but if you're somehow doing it, that's going to stress the battery a lot and is going to be really bad for it.

There is still the problem of heat in using phones while charging, so, I would still advise against it.

Charge To 50% While Storing

This one is a bonus tip for the storage of electronic devices with Lithium batteries. As I have mentioned above, when the battery is at 50%, that is the most stable state for the battery.

This is also the reason that phones are shipped and kept on shelves with their batteries at around 50% charge. So, it only makes sense to try and keep your battery at 50% for long-term storage. Don't charge it to 100% and don't let it drain to 0%.

Now, the battery still gets discharged and degrades even when a device is charged to 50% and then stored. So, the best practice to ensure long life would be to still occasionally charge the device to 50% and then store it again.

Summing Up

Lithium batteries degrade, there is no solution to it. That is just how the materials are and how the batteries are built. One way to address this problem is to change the materials and the technology. In the future, we could see Graphene batteries that could be an alternative.

Graphene batteries are still immature at this point. One day, they'll probably replace Lithium batteries, but until then we can only try to increase the life of the batteries that we have.

  • avoid going to 0% and then to 100%
  • avoid heat
  • avoid idle charging
  • avoid using your device while charging
  • charge your device to 50% while storing

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