Measuring state-of-charge by voltage is simple, but it can be inaccurate because cell materials and temperature affect the voltage. The most blatant error of the voltage-based SoC occurs when disturbing a battery with a charge or discharge. The resulting agitation distorts the voltage and it no longer represents a correct SoC reference. To get accurate readings, the battery needs to rest in the open circuit state for at least four hours; battery manufacturers recommend 24 hours for lead acid. This makes the voltage-based SoC method impractical for a battery in active duty.
Each battery chemistry delivers its own unique discharge signature. While voltage-based SoC works reasonably well for a lead acid battery that has rested, the flat discharge curve of nickel- and lithium-based batteries renders the voltage method impracticable.
The discharge voltage curves of Li-manganese, Li-phosphate and NMC are very flat, and 80 percent of the stored energy remains in the flat voltage profile. While this characteristic is desirable as an energy source, it presents a challenge for voltage-based fuel gauging as it only indicates full charge and low charge; the important middle section cannot be estimated accurately. Figure 1 reveals the flat voltage profile of Li-phosphate (LiFePO) batteries.
The hydrometer offers an alternative to measuring the SoC of flooded lead acid batteries. Here is how it works: When the lead acid battery accepts charge, the sulfuric acid gets heavier, causing the specific gravity (SG) to increase. As the SoC decreases through discharge, the sulfuric acid removes itself from the electrolyte and binds to the plate, forming lead sulfate. The density of the electrolyte becomes lighter and more water-like, and the specific gravity gets lower.
Laptops, medical equipment and other professional portable devices use coulomb counting to estimate SoC by measuring the in-and-out-flowing current. One coulomb per second is one ampere (1A), a term that is used for both charge and discharge. The name “coulomb” was given in honor of Charles-Augustin de Coulomb (1736–1806) who is best known for developing Coulomb’s law.
While this is an elegant solution to a challenging issue, losses reduce the total energy delivered, and what’s available at the end is always less than what had been put in. In spite of this, coulomb counting works well, especially with Li-ion that offer high coulombinc efficiency and low self-discharge. Improvements have been made by also taking aging and low self-discharge. Improvements have been made by also taking aging and temperature-based self-discharge into consideration but periodic calibration is still recommended to bring the “digital battery” in harmony with the “chemical battery.”
To overcome calibration, modern fuel gauges use a “learn” function that estimates how much energy the battery delivered on the previous discharge. Some systems also observe the charge time because a faded battery charges more quickly than a good one.
Makers of advanced BMS claim high accuracies but real life often shows otherwise. Much of the make-believe is hidden behind a fancy readout. Smartphones may show a 100 percent charge when the battery is only 90 percent charged. Design engineers say that the SoC readings on new EV batteries can be off by 15 percent. There are reported cases where EV drivers ran out of charge with a 25 percent SoC reading still on the fuel gauge.
Battery state-of-charge can also be estimated with impedance spectroscopy using the Spectro™ complex modeling method. This allows taking SoC readings with a steady parasitic load of 30A. Voltage polarization and surface charge do not affect the reading as SoC is measured independently of voltage. This opens applications in automotive manufacturing where some batteries are discharged longer than others during testing and debugging and need charging before transit. Measuring SoC by impedance spectroscopy can also be used for load leveling systems where a battery is continuously under charge and discharge.
Measuring SoC independently of voltage also supports dock arrivals and showrooms. Opening the car door applies a parasitic load of about 20A that agitates the battery and falsifies voltage-based SoC measurement. The Spectro™ method helps to identify a low-charge battery from one with a genuine defect.
SoC measurement by impedance spectroscopy is restricted to a new battery with a known good capacity; capacity must be nailed down and have a non-varying value. While SoC readings are possible with a steady load, the battery cannot be on charge during the test.