From the eco-friendly Chevy Volt to high-tech Boeing Dreamliner 787, recent high-profile battery fires are focusing attention on the risks and rewards of one of our most ubiquitous technologies: rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.

Not only do they run nearly all of our laptops and cellphones, but they are now increasingly used to power planes, trains and automobiles. Experts say demands to make vehicles lighter and more fuel-efficient are creating bigger demands on lithium-ion batteries, and that, in turn, is exposing them to risks of overheating. An episode with an overheating battery has now grounded Boeing’s entire fleet of new Dreamliner 787 aircraft.

A smoking lithium-ion battery forced pilots to make an emergency landing of an All Nippon Airways 787 last week, while a second battery inside a Japan Airlines 787 parked at Boston’s Logan Airport ignited on Jan. 7. Japanese investigators said Wednesday that the All Nippon battery was not overcharged, something that many experts originally thought could have been the problem, so the cause is still unclear.

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Experts say the fire could have something to do with wiring or how the batteries were connected to remove heat that's generated during recharging.

“It’s a multidimensional problem,” said Venkat Srinivasan, director of the battery research program at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. “It’s suggesting that something happened outside the battery that failed.”

Nearly 20 years ago, a rash of exploding laptops almost derailed the rechargeable battery industry, but engineers figured out how to devise a cut-off switch that stopped the current after reaching a certain point. Today, scientists and engineers are working on alternatives to lithium-ion batteries that can both last longer and eliminate the so-called “thermal runaway” event when a battery begins to generate more heat, continuing a chemical reaction that results in flames.

Batteries work by converting a chemical reaction into electrical energy. Electrons form a circuit by flowing from a positively-charged cathode to a negatively-charged anode through an electrolyte, which can be either liquid or solid. The voltage difference between the two electrodes produces an electrical current, which is then harnessed to run the device.

Researchers at the University of Texas developed the first lithium-ion rechargeable battery in the early 1980s, but it took another decade before it became a commercial success.

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Academic labs and small private startups are incorporating elements like sulfur, zinc, magnesium or even air into the cathodes of new kinds of batteries, as well as finding new kinds of electrolytes that won’t ignite. Steven Visco, president of Berkeley-based Poly-Plus Battery, is developing lithium-air, lithium-seawater and rechargeable lithium-sulfur batteries for both the Pentagon and Detroit.

“Thermal management of the individual batteries is generally handled by the battery pack design, but there is always the possibility of a flaw in cell manufacturing,” Visco said in an e-mail to Discovery News. “However, all of these safeguards can be compromised when the drive to reduce battery cost (which is certainly important for EVs) leads to shortcuts in manufacturing.”

In order to save weight (and money), the new Dreamliner was engineered with electronic rather than hydraulic control systems. That means its lithium-ion batteries had to produce a lot more power than before, according to Venkat Subramanian, associate professor of energy, environmental and electrical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis.

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The Department of Energy recently awarded Subramanian and collaborators at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory $3.2 million to develop better monitoring systems to detect failures inside batteries before they occur.

“The better understanding we have of the internal states of the battery, the more efficiently we can use them,” Subramanian said.

Japanese and U.S. investigators are now probing the manufacturer of the Dreamliner batteries, Japan-based GS Yuasa. The same firm won a NASA contract recently to supply lithium-ion batteries to the International Space Station.

Despite all the efforts to build a better battery, its likely that both our laptops and our vehicles will continue to run on lithium-ion for the foreseeable future, according to LBL’s Srinivasan.

“We see things in the research pipeline, that will happen, but it will take a while to reach the marketplace,” he said. Srinivasan also noted that for now, there is still a tradeoff between consumer demands for more power and a desire for more safety.

“The biggest trend is more energy. I want my cellphone to last all day. The more energy you put in, the more it can do bad things.”