Voltage Failure Modes

Question from a reader: "Hi Dan, What is the failure mode for Lithium Polymer batteries? I understand that Nickel Cadmium batteries fail as a short circuit usually. Therefore, a pack of NiCads will continue to operate with a shorted cell but with a voltage that is one cell lower. Do LiPo's fail…resulting in the loss of the entire pack? Thanks


First of all the reference to a "failure mode" is not necessarily a singular event. It is in effect a catch-all phrase representing potential problems. I wrote an article series on the concept of Battery Failure Mode and Effects Analysis. But this concept is not new but is manufacturing quality assurance analysis, in essence, be applied to every industry.

The article series can be accessed at:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Specific to your question on lithium polymer batteries there could be a number of "failure mode(s)" and sub-failure modes related to the manufacturing and personal usage of a battery including Li-Po chemistry based cells. For example:

  • Batteries can have faulty cell design
  • Batteries can be manufactured under uncontrolled processes
  • Batteries can be operated in uncontrolled conditions
  • Batteries can be abused
  • Batteries can degrade and lose power

For more information on these examples please see:

Heat and water for example are not good for any battery. But it is surprising to me how many people use their battery and device in both and of course that represents several failure modes. An example is when one of our customers several years ago always took his iPod mini into the sauna at his gym. Well that is not the best place for a battery or device. Eventually his battery died and so did the device. That is a bad failure mode brought about be a user. Another example is when there are metallic electrode shavings evident in the batteries electrolyte. When current is running from one electrode to another through the electrolyte the shavings cause any battery to short circuit. The short circuiting could result in the battery smoking, bubbling or stopping. That is an example of bad manufacturing and of course a failure effect. Another example of a failure mode is when you open the battery casing. If you open the casing once it is sealed hermeneutically then you run the big risk of causing a failure mode to occur.

In any event – any failure mode will cause a battery to either operate at a lower performance than originally designed or stop working period. One interesting side note is that devices can operate with a battery that is at a lower voltage (but not higher voltage) as the device originally manufactured. The reason is because a battery's voltage is not necessarily a static measurement.

Volts – or V – are an electrical measure of energy potential. Voltage can also be thought of as the amount of "pressure" of electrons that pass from a negative connector to a positive connector. Or V can be defined as the measure of the strength of an electrical source of power for a given current level.

Voltage can also be defined as the Electrical Potential difference – a quantity in physics related to the amount of energy that would be required to move an object from one place to another against various types of force. In the fields of electronics the electrical potential difference is the amount of work per charge needed to move electric charge from the second point to the first, or equivalently, the amount of work that unit charge flowing from the first point to the second can perform.

Mathematically voltage is commonly measured by V= I x R; where V=Voltage, I=Current, R=Resistance.

Beyond the definition what challenges many is the confusion that a battery contains four unique types of voltage measurements.
Each voltage measurement type residing in a battery effects battery life.

  • Float Voltage – is battery voltage at zero current (with battery disconnected).
  • Nominal Voltage – is battery voltage range 3.7V, 5.2V, 10.2V, 12V etc that says that a voltage range exists depending on the number of cells in the battery. For example a 12 Volt battery is made of 6 cells and has a Float voltage of about 12V.
  • Charge Voltage – The voltage of a battery while charging.
  • Discharge Voltage – The voltage of a battery while discharging. Again, this voltage is determined by the charge state and the current flowing in the battery. 

So in effect it is possible that a device will operate on a battery at lower voltage. I hope this answers your question.

Until next time Dan Hagopian www.batteryship.com
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