How to Deal With a Swollen Laptop Battery
PC Magazine|October 2021
Lithium-ion batteries pack an amazing punch for their size. They’re robust enough to run our laptops for hours on a single charge, they’re at the core of the latest smartphones, and they even serve as the power plant behind cutting-edge electric vehicles such as the Tesla line.
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But lithium-ion batteries do have limits. Given how powerful laptops have become in the last few years, we’re relying on our machines for longer than ever. That has implications for batteries: They’re in service a lot longer, too. And sometimes, that means they show the limits of their technology.

You may have had this happen to you: A laptop or phone you’ve had for years suddenly stops working, or maybe just starts showing some sign of internal physical swelling. The screen of your phone starts bulging out, or its seams open up, or your laptop keyboard grows an unsightly bulge. That could be caused by a big bubble that gradually or suddenly arose on your battery. Why does this happen, and what can you do about it?

We talked with some engineers and experts from computer manufacturers and related companies to dig into what you need to know about swollen batteries— and what to do if you have one.

Perhaps you already know this. Perhaps you keep your privacy settings tuned and never overshare on social media. How about your friends? If they’re careless about their own privacy, their heedlessness can slop over and affect you. Show them this article—post it on your virtual walls! Maybe they’ll shape up.

WHAT CAUSES MY BATTERY TO SWELL?

Swollen batteries are the result of two things: energy density and heat. A given laptop battery is made up of several discrete cells. You’ll often see laptop batteries described as, for example, four-cell or six-cell, indicating the internal structure of the battery. The swelling is the result of too much current coursing in a non-controlled fashion inside a battery cell, which causes a buildup of heat and gas. This happens as the materials inside a battery decay or is subjected to stress or physical damage over time.

Issues can arise in just one cell or more than one of them. The fact that laptops seldom come with removable batteries anymore (that is, you can swap them in and out without opening up the chassis) exacerbates the problem.

“The reason why these batteries swell is that the electrolyte that separates the layers between the wrap degrade, and when that degrades, it changes into gas,” says Arthur Shi, lead technical writer at iFixit.com. “Now that the electrolyte is degraded, things are no longer insulated, and so they start shorting, and that causes a hot spot later. That can eventually cause it to do a thermal runaway, which means it can even start a fire.”

The most common cause of a swollen battery is overcharging. Keeping your battery at a high state of charge, according to Shi, can stress it out, allowing it to degrade faster.

“In an application where you have a system plugged in 24/7, after a number of years your likelihood of getting a swollen battery increases,” says Phil Jakes, principal engineer and director of strategic technology at Lenovo. “The other thing that drives it is heat. Batteries don’t like to be hot, and there’s a chemical process that gets kicked off when a battery gets over 100 degrees.”

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