Deciphering Lithium Batteries: How do they actually work?

15 May 2024 

Lithium-ion batteries are everywhere around us – in our phones, laptops, and even electric cars. But how do they actually work? And what makes them so special? In this blog, we delve into the world of lithium-ion batteries. From their origins to the latest developments, we explore the basic principles, challenges, and future possibilities of these powerful energy sources.

The History of the Lithium Battery

The story of lithium batteries begins almost a century ago, with G.N. Lewis paving the way in 1912. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that we welcomed the first commercial non-rechargeable lithium batteries. These early batteries, however, brought their own problems, especially around stability and how they were used.


When the 1980s dawned, attempts were made to develop rechargeable lithium batteries, but these did not take off due to problems with the metallic lithium used. It was only in 1991, when Sony introduced the first commercial Li-ion battery, that lithium batteries really took off.


A significant advance was the contribution of John B. Goodenough, co-inventor of the lithium-cobalt-oxide battery. His innovation opened the door to the superior specific energy of Li-ion. Although his work was initially unrecognized, Goodenough later received the praise he deserved as a key figure in the development of lithium batteries.


How Do Lithium Batteries Work?


Lithium-ion batteries are actually quite clever in their simplicity. They consist of three main parts: a positive electrode called the cathode, a negative electrode called the anode, and a type of conductive material called an electrolyte.


In these batteries, the anode is the negatively charged part, while the cathode is positively charged. The cathode is made of a type of metal oxide, while the anode is made from a special, porous carbon.


When you use a lithium-ion battery and it discharges, small particles called lithium ions move from the anode through the electrolyte to the cathode. At the same time, electrons are released that provide the electrical current we use. When you then recharge the battery, this process is reversed: the lithium ions move from the cathode back to the anode, absorbing electrons.


This constant ballet of particles traveling through the electrolyte and separator allows lithium-ion batteries to store and deliver the energy we need for everyday devices, like our phones, laptops, and electric cars.


Types of Lithium Batteries


Lithium-ion batteries are available in various variants, each with unique properties and applications. Although they all use lithium ions as an electrolyte, they vary in composition and performance characteristics.


One of the early variants of lithium-ion batteries used carbon coke as the anode material, but since the 1990s, most manufacturers have switched to graphite due to its more stable discharge curve. Graphite, a common form of carbon, offers a good balance between performance and stability and is therefore widely used in consumer electronics.


In addition, there have been innovative developments, such as the use of silicon-based alloys and nanostructured lithium titanate as anode additives. Silicon can theoretically store more energy than graphite, but it can lead to problems such as anode expansion during charging. On the other hand, lithium titanate offers excellent lifespan, loadability, and safety, although its specific energy is slightly lower.


Manufacturers are also experimenting with different cathode materials, such as lithium-cobalt-oxide, lithium-iron-phosphate, and lithium-manganese-oxide. Each of these materials has its own advantages and disadvantages in terms of energy density, lifespan, and safety.


In addition to differences in materials, there are also various cell configurations, such as Energy Cells, Power Cells, and Hybrid Cells. Energy Cells are optimized for high capacity and longer run times, while Power Cells focus on high power output. Hybrid Cells offer a compromise between the two, balancing capacity and power.


Choosing the right lithium-ion battery depends on the specific requirements of the application. Whether it’s portable electronics, electric vehicles, or energy storage systems, the diversity of available lithium-ion batteries offers a range of options to meet different needs.


Pros and Cons of Lithium Batteries


Lithium-ion batteries offer several advantages, including high specific energy and loadability, long life, and ease of maintenance. However, they also have limitations, such as the need for a protection circuit to prevent thermal runaway and restrictions at high temperatures and during transport. Understanding these pros and cons is essential for effectively using and maintaining lithium-ion batteries.



  •             High specific energy and high loadability with Power Cells.
  •             Long cycle life and longer shelf life; maintenance-free.
  •             High capacity, low internal resistance, good coulombic efficiency.
  •             Simple charging algorithm and reasonably short charging times.



  •              Protection circuit required to prevent thermal runaway when loaded.
  •              Degrades at high temperature and during storage under high voltage.
  •              No fast charging possible at freezing temperatures (<0°C, <32°F).
  •              Transport regulations required when shipping in larger quantities.



How Elfa Can Support You in Using Lithium-Ion Batteries


Understanding the complex world of lithium-ion batteries is essential for optimizing their performance and lifespan. By gaining insights into factors such as cycle duration, charging and discharging times, and environmental influences, you can maximize the efficiency of your energy storage. At Elfa, we understand that choosing and maintaining the right batteries is crucial for the success of your projects.


As your partner in energy solutions, Elfa not only provides high-quality lithium-ion batteries but also expertise and support to make your projects a success. Whether it’s supplying batteries for electric vehicles, solar energy systems, or industrial applications, we are ready to assist you at every step of the process.


Contact us today and discover how Elfa can support you in implementing and maintaining lithium-ion batteries for your specific needs.


Unfortunately, Elfa only supplies to business customers. Therefore, we kindly ask you to have your electrical installer contact us. This way, we can still assist you. Thank you for your understanding.

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