Cells sold today as polymer batteries have a different design from the older lithium-ion cells. Unlike lithium-ion cylindrical, or prismatic cells, which have a rigid metal case, polymer cells have a flexible, foil-type (polymer laminate) case, but they still contain organic solvent. The main difference between commercial polymer and lithium-ion cells is that in the latter the rigid case presses the electrodes and the separator onto each other, whereas in polymer cells this external pressure is not required because the electrode sheets and the separator sheets are laminated onto each other.
Since no metal battery cell casing is needed, the battery can be lighter and it can be specifically shaped to fit the device it will power. Because of the denser packaging without intercell spacing between cylindrical cells and the lack of metal casing, the energy density of Li-poly batteries is over 20% higher than that of a classical Li-ion battery and approximately three times better than NiCd and NiMH batteries.
The voltage of a Li-poly cell varies from about 2.7 V (discharged) to about 4.23 V (fully charged), and Li-poly cells have to be protected from overcharge by limiting the applied voltage to no more than 4.235 V per cell used in a series combination. Overcharging a Li-poly battery will likely result in explosion and/or fire. During discharge on load, the load has to be removed as soon as the voltage drops below approximately 3.0 V per cell (used in a series combination), or else the battery will subsequently no longer accept a full charge and may experience problems holding voltage under load.
Early in its development, lithium polymer technology had problems with internal resistance. Other challenges include longer charge times and slower maximum discharge rates compared to more mature technologies. Li-Po batteries typically require more than an hour for a full charge. Recent design improvements have increased maximum discharge currents from two times to 15 or even 30 times the cell capacity (discharge rate in amps, cell capacity in amp-hours). In March 2005 Toshiba announced a new design offering a much faster (about 1-3 minutes) rate of charge. These cells have yet to reach the market but should have a dramatic effect on the power tool and electric vehicle industries, and a major effect on consumer electronics; especially electrically powered model aircraft.
When compared to the lithium-ion battery, Li-poly has a greater life cycle degradation rate. However, in recent years, manufacturers have been declaring upwards of 500 charge-discharge cycles before the capacity drops to 80% (see Sanyo). Another variant of Li-poly cells, the "thin film rechargeable lithium battery", has been shown to provide more than 10,000 cycles.
A rechargeable lithium polymer Sony laptop battery.
A compelling advantage of Li-poly cells is that manufacturers can shape the battery almost however they please, which can be important to mobile phone manufacturers constantly working on smaller, thinner, and lighter phones. Another advantage of lithium polymer cells over nickel cadmium and nickel metal hydride cells is that the rate of self-discharge is much lower.
Li-poly batteries are also gaining favor in the world of radio-controlled aircraft, where the advantages of both lower weight and greatly increased run times can be sufficient justification for the price. However, lithium polymer-specific chargers are required to avoid fire and explosion. Explosions can also occur if the battery is short-circuited, as tremendous current passes through the cell in an instant. Radio-control enthusiasts take special precautions to ensure their battery leads are properly connected and insulated. Specially designed electronic motor speed controls are used to prevent excessive discharge and subsequent battery damage. This is achieved using a low voltage cutoff (LVC) setting that is adjusted to maintain cell voltage at (typically) 3 V per cell.
A rechargeable lithium polymer HP PDA battery.
Li-poly batteries are also gaining ground in PDAs (including iPhone) and laptop computers, such as Apple's MacBook and Lenovo's Thinkpad (Ultrabay Batteries), Dell (D-bay Batteries) and small digital music devices such as iPods and other MP3 players, as well as portable gaming devices like the Sony PSP or Nintendo's Game Boy Advance SP, where small form factors and energy density outweigh cost considerations.
These batteries may also power the next generation of battery electric vehicles. The cost of an electric car of this type is prohibitive, but proponents argue that with increased production, the cost of Li-poly batteries will go down.
Canadian company BionX supplied electric bicycle conversion kits that used brushless motors and nickel metal Hydride batteries for some years, but in 2006, they introduced batteries that used lithium-ion technology. During 2007 Urban Mover and PowaCycle, both in the UK, introduced the first commercially available Li-poly powered electric bikes, as opposed to just supplying conversion kits.