Hatin' on lithium ion

Originally published 2004 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


Most of the key components of modern electronic devices - tough materials, electric motors, displays, sensors, integrated circuits - have improved out of sight in the last few decades. But batteries haven't.

If they had, we wouldn't still be driving cars with wet lead acid batteries under the bonnet, waiting to drip ghastly liquid on us as we lie pinned under our inverted vehicle in a ditch.

I'm just saying.

But wait, you say. We do have better batteries. We have lithium ion! And lithium polymer! And they rock! They're small, they're light, they charge pretty fast, and they don't suffer from memory effect!

Ah, yes. Well. I'm afraid you need some... re-education. Come inside with me, where the black helicopters can't see us.

I've ranted about memory effect before. So never mind that for now. I've another bone to pick with lithium-whatever rechargeable batteries.

Remember that iPod scandal from the end of 2003, when Casey and Van Neistat shot briefly to geekly fame with their claim that "iPod's Unreplaceable Battery Lasts Only 18 Months"?

Well, that particular rich-kid protest movement went over like a lead balloon, but the basic facts it was built on are valid. The iPod is like a lot of other little gadgets today, in that its battery can't be replaced without taking it apart (though at least iPod batteries have a plug-in cable, and aren't hard-wired to the circuit board). And all iPods - old, new, Mini, Photo, and Shuffle - use lithium ion batteries.

Lithium ion has good energy density (compared with other battery technologies, not compared with, say, a piece of firewood). The current iPod batteries pack more than three watt-hours into a battery that weighs less than 17 grams; that's about double the energy density of the best AA NiMH cells. That's why LiI (and lithium polymer, which for current cells is not much different) is everywhere.

The Big Problem with LiI, though, is that it's got less life expectancy than a Nexus Six replicant. Possibly only two years. Probably only three.

(Apple now have more stuff to say about batteries than they did during the Neistat flap, but you still won't find a mention of this lifespan limit - only that there is a lifespan limit, which Apple leave you free to think may be 57 years.)

Whether you use it hard or leave it on the shelf, there's a good chance a LiI battery will be so degraded as to be pretty much useless after a couple of years. And that's a couple of years after it's made, not a couple of years after you buy it.

That last part is a bit of a land mine, even if your gadget has a separate, snap-in battery. If your old battery dies of old age, and the manufacturer's moved on from that particular form factor of battery, and no third party manufacturer's selling new or freshly re-celled batteries to suit, you're probably screwed. There may well be "new old stock" LiI batteries in the original sealed packaging out there, but they'll all be useless.

Assembling your own LiI batteries is not necessarily possible, even if you're comfortable with soldering other kinds of batteries together. LiI packs often have internal electronics that keeps track of the battery condition; if you can't reset the battery condition firmware, new cells won't be seen as having any more capacity than the old ones. And the new cells had better be similar enough to the old ones that the charger doesn't make them misbehave.

(Misbehaviour, for LiI packs, often involves smoke.)

You can push the envelope and assemble your own batteries completely from scratch, but that'll only work for devices that'll be happy with chip-less packs.

If you end up in this situation, you could also hack up a NiMH pack and stick it on with Velcro. A nominal-3.7V LiI cell can very probably be successfully replaced by three 1.2V NiMH cells in series. But you'll need a new charger, and the whole operation is a bit too Mad Max for most people.

Fortunately, the limited lifespan of LiI matches the ephemeral nature of most gadgets at the moment. Maybe, by the time when we're all jacking into cyberspace to go shopping for new Zeiss eyes, many classes of gadget will have reached the same maturity currently enjoyed by wristwatches and handguns. Then, it'll be perfectly reasonable to use high-tech items that were made decades ago.

Right now, though, a three year hard limit on battery life is not a tremendously big deal. Even a two-year-old mobile phone or MP3 player isn't a very exciting product right now.

But, heck, the thing probably still works. If you're still perfectly happy with your two megapixel digital camera or 650MHz P-III laptop, you're going to be pretty honked off if it turns out to be impossible to get new batteries for it - and even more irritated if you buy a few dud "new" batteries before you figure that out.

You young whippersnappers may not believe me, but I've got NiMH AAs here that I've been using hard for four whole years. They don't have anything like their original capacity left, but they're not weak enough to be useless yet. And modern sealed nickel cadmium cells were invented in 1947; they're pretty darn mature now, and very durable.

Everyone's still waiting for a really good portable power storage technology - fuel cells, anyone? In the meantime, we're still stuck with lithium-whatever. But it pays to bear in mind that a widget that runs from humble AAs may not be as slim and sexy as a LiI-powered version of the same thing, but if some other major component of the device hasn't dropped dead three years from now, at least you'll still be able to get batteries for it.

Other columns

Learning to love depreciation

Overclockers: Get in early!

Stuff I Hate

Why Macs annoy me

USB: It's worth what you pay

"Great product! Doesn't work!"

The virus I want to see

Lies, damned lies and marketing

Unconventional wisdom

How not to e-mail me

Dan's Quick Guide to Memory Effect, You Idiots

Your computer is not alive

What's the point of robot pets?

Learning from spam

Why it doesn't matter whether censorware works

The price of power

The CPU Cooler Snap Judgement Guide

Avoiding electrocution

Video memory mysteries

New ways to be wrong

Clearing the VR hurdles

Not So Super

Do you have a license for that Athlon?

Cool bananas

Getting rid of the disks

LCDs, CRTs, and geese

Filling up the laptop

IMAX computing

Digital couch potatoes, arise!

Invisible miracles

Those darn wires

Wossit cost, then?

PFC decoded

Cheap high-res TV: Forget it.


Dan Squints At The Future, Again

The programmable matter revolution

Sounding better

Reality Plus™!

I want my Tidy-Bot!

Less go, more show

In search of stupidity

It's SnitchCam time!

Power struggle

Speakers versus headphones

Getting paid to play

Hurdles on the upgrade path

Hatin' on lithium ion

Wanted: Cheap giant bit barrel

The screen you'll be using tomorrow

Cool gadget. Ten bucks.

Open Sesame!

Absolutely accurate predictions

The truth about everything

Burr walnut computing

Nothing new behind the lens

Do it yourself. Almost.

The quest for physicality

Tool time

Pretty PCs - the quest continues

The USB drive time bomb

Closer to quietness

Stuff You Should Want

The modular car

Dumb smart houses

Enough already with the megapixels

Inching toward the NAS of our dreams

Older than dirt

The Synthetics are coming


Game Over is nigh

The Embarrassingly Easy Case Mod

Dumb then, smart now

Fuel cells - are we there yet?

A PC full of magnets

Knowledge is weakness

One Laptop Per Me

The Land of Wind, Ghosts and Minimised Windows

Things that change, things that don't

Water power

Great interface disasters

Doughnut-shaped universes

Grease and hard drive change

Save me!

Impossible antenna, only $50!

I'm ready for my upgrade

The Great Apathetic Revolution

Protect the Wi-Fi wilderness!

Wi-Fi pirate radio

The benign botnet

Meet the new DRM, same as the old DRM

Your laptop is lying to you

Welcome to super-surveillance

Lemon-fresh power supplies


Internet washing machines, and magic rip-off boxes

GPGPU and the Law of New Features

Are you going to believe me, or your lying eyes?

We're all prisoners of game theory

I think I'm turning cyborg-ese, I really think so

Half an ounce of electrons

Next stop, clay tablets

A bold new computer metaphor

Won't someone PLEASE think of the hard drives?!

Alternate history

From aerial torpedoes to RoboCars

How fast is a hard drive? How long is a piece of string?

"In tonight's episode of Fallout 4..."

How hot is too hot?

Nerd Skill Number One

What'll be free next?

Out: Hot rods. In: Robots.

500 gig per second, if we don't get a flat

No spaceship? No sale.

The shifting goalposts of AI

Steal This Education

Next stop: Hardware piracy

A hundred years of EULAs

The triumph of niceness

The daily grind

Speed kings


Game crazy

Five trillion bits flying in loose formation

Cannibalise the corpses!

One-note NPCs

Big Brother is watching you play

Have you wasted enough time today?

The newt hits! You die...

Stuck in the foothills

A modest censorship proposal

In Praise of the Fisheye


The death of the manual

Of magic lanterns, and MMORPGs

When you have eliminated the impossible...

Welcome to dream-land

Welcome to my museum

Stomp, don't sprint!

Grinding myself down

Pathfinding to everywhere

A deadly mouse trap

If it looks random, it probably isn't

Identical voices and phantom swords


Socialised entertainment

Warfare. Aliens. Car crashes. ENTERTAINMENT!

On the h4xx0ring of p4sswordZ

Seeing past the normal

Science versus SoftRAM

Righteous bits

Random... ish... numbers

I get letters

Money for nothing

Of course you'd download a car. Or a gun!

A comforting lie

Give Dan some money!
(and no-one gets hurt)