When it comes to batteries, water is poison
Lithium-ion batteries exist in various forms for different applications. From mm-scale button cells for med tech applications to big battery packs in electric vehicles. In simple terms, manufacturers successively stack cathode and anode sheets, aluminum (cathode) or copper (anode) foil with active material on both sides and separate them with a polymer separator. These are brought together into a housing and the liquid electrolyte is added to produce the final battery. The water content of each component needs to be as low as possible.
This white paper dives into more detail:
- What makes water poisonous to lithium-ion batteries
- How water greatly reduces battery performance
- Why water testing in LIBs is critical to ensure high quality
- A solution for measuring water content in the main components before it’s too late
Download the free white paper now to learn how to prevent water from damaging your lithium-ion batteries, courtesy of Mettler Toledo.
Poison for Lithium-Ion Batteries
Water is poisonous to lithium-ion batteries. It reacts with the liquid electrolyte inside the battery to produce aggressive degradation products that greatly reduce performance. Thorough testing for water in all functional components of a lithium-ion battery is therefore essential to ensure high quality.
Water – the most important QC parameter for battery manufacturers 4
The ever-increasing market for portable electronic devices, together with the increasing pace of the electric vehicle (EV) revolution, has resulted in an equally large demand for rechargeable batteries . Lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) are state-of-the art in this technology and will presumably continue to be so, at least over the next several decades . This battery type exhibits a high energy density as it is light yet powerful, a good cycle durability as it can be charged an recharged without losing much energy per cycle, and a low self-discharge rate.
LIBs store energy that is released by an electrochemical reaction between the anode and the cathode material (see Figure 1). Both cathode and anode contain positively charged lithium ions. During discharge, the oxidation reaction at the anode releases electrons and lithium cations. The electrons flow through an external wire to the cathode. To close the electric circuit, lithium cations flow through the liquid electrolyte and the separator to the cathode, where they recombine in a reduction reaction. During charging, the reactions at the electrodes
are reversed and the lithium ions flow in the opposite direction. The lithium ions do not partake in the overall electrochemical reaction (Figure 1) and remain in their oxidation state.
- Separator +
Copper current collector
Aluminum current collector
Anode: C6 + x Li+ Cathode: LiCoO2
?? Li1-xCoO2 + x Li+
Anode: LixC6 ?? C6 + x Li+
Cathode: Li1-xCoO2 + x Li+ ?? LiCoO2
Anode Electrolyte Cathode
Figure 1: Charge and discharge reaction equations and a schematic of a lithium-ion battery with lithium cobalt oxide (LCO, LiCoO2) as cathode.
The vast majority of LIBs use graphite (C6/LixC6) as anode material, which is abundantly available. The layered crystal structure of graphite allows the lithium cations to easily enter, also called lithium intercalation, and leave the electrode. Additionally, its low volume expansion during the charge/discharge cycle prevents cracks and defects from forming in the solid material, which cause the battery to lose energy. Furthermore, graphite is a good electrical conductor. The electrons can flow through the graphite to the copper collector, to which the anode material is attached (see Figure 1).
These desirable properties explain the widely accepted use of graphite as anode material. In contrast, there is significant room for improvement in cathodes, which are made of various materials, which depend on the final use of the battery. Lithium cobalt oxide (LCO, Li1-xCoxO2) is the most commonly used cathode material. During charge, the cobalt is partially oxidized from Co(III) to Co(IV) and reduced to Co(III) again during discharge, respectively. The lithium ions balance the overall charge of the cathode and move either inside, or leave the material, in order to do so. However, although lithium cobalt oxide has a very high energy density, it also has its drawbacks. Cobalt is a rare, expensive resource, and cobalt reserves are mainly located in unstable regions . This concern lead to the development of cobalt-saving lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide (Li-NMC, LiaNixMnyCozO2) cathodes. The drawback of Li-NMC cathodes is their slightly lower energy density. Both LCO and Li-NMC cathodes share the risk of oxygen production resulting in a runaway reaction and ultimately an explosion. Lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4), another cathode material, is inherently safer but the tradeoff is
a lower energy density. It is therefore preferable for EV applications.
The anode and cathode are both soaked in a liquid electrolyte (see Figure 1). Although lithium ions are principally not involved in the electrochemical reaction, it is important they are efficiently carried to the respective electrode. The electrolyte is usually a mixture of organic carbonates and the electrolyte salt that increases the lithium ion conductivity. Lithium hexafluorophosphate (LiPF6) is the state-of-the-art electrolyte salt in such electrolytes. It dissolves well in organic carbonates, is electrochemically stable and helps to conduct lithium cations. However, the use of LiPF6 also comes with certain caveats. Traces of water in the electrolyte catalyze the formation of degradation products that can compromise the electrodes and the electrolyte itself (see Equation 1). Amongst others, the electrical insulator, lithium fluoride (LiF), and hydrofluoric acid (HF) are formed . Both substances lower the electrode's efficiency over time by either disturbing the lithium intercalation or the transport of electrons. HF can further lead to heat released due to degradation of the cathode, thereby risking a thermal runaway scenario . The bad influence on the battery's performance gives water its meaningful name: Battery poison.
Degradation of electrolyte: LiPF6 LiF + PF5
PF5 + H2O → POF3 + 2 HF
Equation 1: Degradation reaction of the electrolyte. Water shifts the equilibrium to the right forming the electrical insulator LiF and PF5 that further reacts to produce HF .
Water – the most important QC parameter for battery manufacturers
Lithium-ion batteries exist in various forms for different applications. From mm-scale button cells for med tech applications to big battery packs in electric vehicles. In simple terms, manufacturers successively stack cathode and anode sheets, aluminum (cathode) or copper (anode) foil with active material on both sides, and separate them with a polymer separator. These are brought together into a housing and the liquid electrolyte is added to produce the final battery. The water content of each component needs to be as low as possible.
Quality Control of Cathode and Anode
The best way to measure the water content of electrode sheets is the gas-extraction technique with coulometric Karl Fischer (KF) detection. The electrode sheets are cut into small flakes, filled into vials, placed onto the InMotion KF™ oven rack (see Figure 2) and the method is started with OneClick™. The oven heats the electrode sample to 160 °C and a pre-dried stream of nitrogen extracts and carries the vaporized water to the coulometric titration cell, where it is detected. In the application note M808 the detailed procedure is explained. The analysis of anode and cathode sheets revealed water contents of 106 ppm and 152 ppm respectively with relative standard deviations of 2.6 and 5.2% (see Table 1).
Figure 2: C30S coulometric KF titrator with InMotion KF oven.
Quality Control of the Electrolyte
The measurement of the electrolyte is more challenging. The water content is very low (<50 ppm), it is highly hydrophilic, and commonly used organic carbonates like dimethyl, ethyl methyl and vinylene carbonate show side reactions with conventional methanol-based KF reagents. Low water content samples are most accurately measured using coulometric KF titration. Small amounts of iodine are generated in-situ by a generator electrode. The hydrophilicity of the electrolyte requires very careful sample handling. The sample container should be closed in a dry argon atmosphere, protected from air humidity by a rubber septum and the syringes must be rinsed with dry electrolyte prior to the injection. Using methanol-free KF reagents prevents side reactions and enables the
solvent to be reused for several measurements. Application note M820 describes the water content determination for liquid electrolytes. Along with water, hydrofluoric acid (HF) – one of the detrimental degradation products of LiPF6 – can be tested using an acid-base titration with sodium hydroxide as the titrant. Application note M813 describes the method in more detail. As the density of a liquid depends on its molecular composition, a quick density check can help to reveal electrolyte contaminations with water or other impurities.
Coulometric KF with gas-phase extraction
Coulometric KF with direct injection
Figure 3: Left: Excellence T5 Titrator. Middle right: C30S coulometric KF titrator and InMotion KF oven; right: C30S coulometric KF titrator.
Sample mass [g]
Sample mass [g]
Sample mass [g]
Table 1: Results of water content determination of lithium-ion battery cathode, anode and freshly opened electrolyte. The cathode and anode samples were analyzed using the gas-phase extraction technique with coulometric detection, whereas the electrolyte was analyzed using normal coulometric KF titration with direct injection. *As the sample takes up water during its preparation, the statistics are not significant and therefore not displayed. See application note M808 for more details.
In addition to the solutions for water and HF testing, multiple titration applications exist to help characterize the active electrode material. Application notes M832, M833 and M834 show ways to determine the cobalt, nickel and manganese content in nickel manganese cobalt (Li-NMC) cathode material. The cobalt content in LCO cathode material is tested using M829, and impurities such as lithium chloride or lithium hydroxide can be determined using methods M828 and M830. Furthermore, there are various applications for the characterization of different components of batteries using thermogravimetric analysis (TGA) and differential scanning calorimetry (DSC).
Water testing in LIBs is critical in QC as it reacts with the electrolyte to produce detrimental degradation products that reduce battery performance. Karl Fischer titration is the method of choice to measure water content in the main components – cathode, anode and electrolyte – before they are built into a battery housing.
The above mentioned applications are described in detail in the corresponding application notes:
 Electric Vehicle Outlook 2020, www.about.bnef.com, visited 15.06.2020.
 Azevedo M., Campagnol N., Hagenbuch T., Hoffman K., Lala A., Ramsbottom O., Lithium and cobalt – a tale of two commodities, McKinsey&Company, Metals and Mining, June 2018.
 Stich M., Göttlinger M., Kurniawan M., Schmidt U., Bund A., J. Phys. Chem., 2018, 122, 16, 8836-8842.
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Subject to technical changes
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