It's been a no good, very bad month for Samsung: The Korean electronics company has been forced to discontinue its hotly anticipated line of Galaxy Note 7 smartphones after widespread battery failures caused the devices to catch fire.
Conversely, it's been a very, very good month for Silatronix, the burgeoning Madison tech startup working to make a safer lithium ion battery.
"We've seen a dramatic increase in interest in what we're doing," said Robert Hamers, a University of Wisconsin-Madison chemical engineering professor, and a co-founder and chief technology officer of the company.
Hamers said that typically, lithium ion batteries fail for two reasons, and that it's possible either scenario played a role in the Samsung debacle.
One thing that can happen is that a thin, paperlike barrier inside of the battery that keeps the positive and negative electrodes from touching may get punctured.
"If there's anything pokey that can poke through that separator and actually touch that electrode, suddenly you've got a short-circuit inside the battery," said Hamers.
A short-circuit is less than ideal, given that the gel facilitating electrical flow in batteries — AKA, electrolytes — is flammable.
The other way a battery can fail is if a buildup of carbon dioxide occurs due to high internal temperatures. That can cause the battery to swell up within its hermetically sealed casing.
"You could think of it as flatulent battery," joked Hamers.
The product that Silatronix has developed, said Hamers, goes a long way toward nullifying either scenario. Essentially, the company has introduced certain chemical compounds into electrolytes — a tweak that eliminates the risk of gas buildup, while reducing the flammability of the liquid.
Hamers said Silatronix had initially been pitching an electrolyte to manufacturers that was rich enough in the organosilicons that it rendered a lithium battery totally fireproof. However, companies weren't sold on the product, since it necessitated a trade-off in terms of battery life.
"What we learned is that the industry will not sacrifice any element of performance for an increase in safety," said Hamers.
The product that Silatronix is now pushing is a compromise of sorts: It doesn't totally eliminate the flammability risk, but it does mitigate it. Plus, there's an upside that's grabbed the attention of battery manufacturers.
"There's actually an increase in performance — you can have higher temperatures, but no risk of a gassing problem," said Hamers.
It's a class of compounds, he said, that's "unlike anything that anyone has used before."
Hamers said that Silatronix is in the process of testing its product with all of the major battery manufacturers in the world right now. The dragon to slay after that, he said, will be introducing the safer lithium ion batteries to the world on a major scale, in some sort of major consumer product.