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Lithium batteries are the workhorses that power much of the modern world. These ubiquitous devices do everything from powering your laptops and smartphones to powering electric vehicles.
The demand for lithium batteries is huge and growing exponentially. Trying to pin down the exact numbers that are produced each year is difficult. However, in the US alone, the market was worth $40.5 billion in 2020. This value is expected to grow to $91.9 billion by 2030.
Under such circumstances, the rise of a used battery market is inevitable. But should you buy a used lithium battery?
Lithium batteries: how they work
You should understand how lithium batteries work, as this can ultimately have a significant impact on your decision. We won’t go into too much detail, but it’s valuable information to consider if you’re considering buying a used lithium battery.
Lithium Batteries: The Components and How They Work Together
A lithium-ion battery typically consists of three main components:
- Cathode: This is a metal oxide
- Anode: This typically consists of carbon
- Electrolyte: This is a lithium salt in an organic solvent
When you charge your device, lithium ions are released from the cathode and travel through the electrolyte to the anode. As the battery discharges, the ion flow reverses. This flow creates the electrical current that powers your device.
The Electrolyte Factor
One of the considerations when deciding to buy a used battery is its performance. Several factors can contribute to battery performance degradation. But the main culprit is the electrolyte.
Over time, the electrolyte reacts with the electrode materials to form solid electrolyte interfacial layers (SEI). These layers can impede the movement of lithium ions between the electrodes, reducing the battery’s capacity and performance.
In addition, tiny needle-like structures, so-called dendrites, can form and grow in the electrolyte. These can be potentially dangerous and lead to short circuits and overheating of the batteries. In extreme cases, this can lead to a battery catching fire.
Conservation and control of stored energy
Lithium batteries store a lot of energy for their size. This factor, along with its affordability, is one of the main reasons why the battery has become one of our most important energy stores.
But energy in any form can be dangerous if not contained and controlled. This energy is a blessing when it comes to powering your car or laptop. But if you leave it to yourself, the story can be different.
Even new batteries are not immune to a “loss of containment”. One such example is the infamous Samsung Galaxy Note 7, whose battery tended to explode. Admittedly this is an extreme case, but it illustrates what happens when all this energy is not controlled.
As an analogy, it makes sense to compare lithium batteries to gasoline. Gasoline is a perfectly safe energy storage medium when properly stored (contained) and its energy release controlled. The same rules apply to lithium batteries.
Most people would be sensible enough not to carry their gas around in a damaged or leaking gas tank. A damaged battery housing effectively reflects this risk.
So is it a good idea to buy a used lithium battery?
The short answer is no. Buying a used battery is always a risk. First of all, the drop in performance of the battery has to be considered. But perhaps the most compelling reason is security.
The safety factor is of such concern that stricter legislation on the sale of used batteries is inevitable. We can take one product type as an example – many reports of e-bikes and e-scooters catching fire. A recent case of an e-bike lithium battery exploding that caused a fire in a Manhattan apartment block was followed by a series of proposed legislation, including:
- Prohibit the sale of batteries that have not been tested and labeled by an authorized body.
- Prohibit the assembly and sale of refurbished or used lithium-ion batteries.
- Employers who use delivery workers would need to distribute training material detailing how to safely use, store and charge electric transportation equipment.
It is more than likely that more national and local legislation will follow.
What if I need to buy a used battery?
So buying a used battery is not a smart idea. But what if you have to? For example, maybe you have an older device that uses a proprietary battery that is no longer manufactured.
There are a few steps you can take to ensure that the used battery you buy is safe in the first place and still has useful performance.
- Visual inspection: Remember the gasoline analogy? The battery must be in good physical condition to safely store this energy.
- Test the capacity: The easiest way to do this is with a battery capacity tester. This will confirm how much charge the battery can hold.
- Story: Try to find out the battery usage history. Ask about factors such as the number of charge and discharge cycles. Storage conditions are also important. A battery exposed to extreme temperatures or misuse may degrade or become damaged.
- Certification: An uncertified battery should definitely be avoided, but this is even more true when choosing a used battery. Examine the battery and look for certifications and ratings from reputable organizations like UL, FCC, and CE.
- Buy from a reputable source: Check the seller’s credentials. A reputable specialist dealer checks the batteries for safety and capacity before they are sold. They may even offer a warranty on the product, although these tend to be fairly limited in what they cover and how long it lasts.
- Compatibility: Make sure the battery you are considering is compatible with your device and charger. It can be dangerous to use incompatible chargers.
Ultimately, however, buying a used battery can be a godsend. The problem is that the consequences of a missed shot can be more than just buying a dud. It can be downright dangerous.
Be careful with batteries
It may seem like we’re giving lithium batteries a bad name, but nothing could be further from the truth. Lithium batteries are technological marvels that are transforming the way we power society. But densely packed energy in any form can always release itself unexpectedly with spectacular results. This is something to be avoided for obvious reasons.
Used batteries will always be more prone to reliability and performance issues. The best advice is to only go for them when there are no other viable options.
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