Will My Phone Explode? Answers to Your Lithium-Ion Battery Questions

the galaxy note 7 pictured after exploding, see how the battery pack has exploded, expanded and shattered the screen

As Samsung removes the Galaxy Note 7, it is time for an introduction on smartphone batteries.

If you’ve seen images of scorched Samsung Galaxy Note 7s, you would be right to question the potential dangers of the smartphone you have in your pocket. Whilst experts say that, aside from the now-discontinued smartphone, there is nothing to worry about with most devices. It is worth taking note the fact that we are all carrying around little devices of densely packed energy.

Why are lithium-ion batteries volatile?

 

the galaxy note 7 pictured after exploding, see how the battery pack has exploded, expanded and shattered the screen
Galaxy Note 7 after Exploding

It down to the chemistry, said Kenneth Boyce, principal engineering director at UL (Universal Laboratories), a global organisation that certifies the safety of electrical goods.  Inside every lithium-ion battery has two electrodes, kept apart by what’s called a separator. A fluid electrolyte moves negatively and positively charged ions between the electrodes. If the electrodes come into contact, they can start a fire.

 

“The organic fluid in lithium-ion batteries is a distant relative of alcohol and gasoline,” said Donald R. Sadoway, a material science professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-founder of Ambri Inc., a startup directed to help city power grids preserve energy by using large batteries. “That’s how severely flammable these batteries can be under the right circumstances.”

What induces a lithium-ion battery to overheat and ignite on fire?

Multiple different things can prompt lithium-ion batteries to start a fire, Mr Boyce said. Fires can occur not only from a broken separator allowing the electrodes to come into contact but if the battery is contaminated in any way during the manufacturing stage, or if the battery is incapable of accepting a charge after it is filled up, he said. Fires can also occur from punctures or dents to a battery, which can happen when phones become bent or broken.

“We crowd a lot of power into a small footprint,” Mr Boyce said. “That’s great for consumers because you want a compact battery that charges quickly, lasts long and is portable.” But because of this, he added, “the design and fabrication process is critical.”

The recall of the Galaxy Note 7 after some devices caught fire has put the attention back on phone batteries and the suppliers.

How common are overheating occurrences with lithium batteries?

Lithium batteries exploding is rare, experts say. Despite its flammable nature, lithium-ion is a relatively safe technology.

Up to this point, the most well-known examples of lithium-ion batteries catching fire were instances in Sony laptops that stretch back as far as 2006. Sony ran into a similar battery issue earlier this year, prompting a recall. But as lithium-ion batteries show up in more devices—phones, smartwatches, smart-home devices, electric cars—incidents simply become more commonplace.

“In a few years, when we start to see 4 billion to 6 billion cells being shipped out across the world, that failure rate will rise to hundreds of incidents each year,” Mr. Boyce predicted. “That’s still a small number, all things considered. But some of them can be catastrophic.”

What did Samsung get wrong with the Note 7?

One reason it’s hard to solve a faulty battery riddle, Prof. Sadoway said, is that it is likely to be little evidence to study. “In the case of battery fires, the fire destroys the battery and the phone,” he said. “The evidence needed for a postmortem investigation is mostly lost.” Prof. Sadoway was not involved in the Note 7 examination, although his research at MIT has included lithium-ion batteries extensively.

What should businesses and consumers do?

If you do own a Samsung Galaxy Note 7, turn it off and take it in for a replacement or refund. “We don’t stop putting air bags in our cars because one particular subset of a specific model from one business had faulty air bags,” Prof. Sadoway said. That said, if your smartphone is visibly damaged, the battery is likely to be as well, so it’s best to stop using it and find a replacement.

Mr Boyce, who works for an agency that handles industry oversight, not surprisingly advises that this is what is needed. Battery safety, an area UL has spent years investigating, is complex but solvable, he said.

“Safety requirements, technology standards and independent authorities making sure devices are built right can make things safer,” Mr Boyce said. “That has been the case in other industries, such as the car industry.”

Prof. Sadoway expects the industry itself will react to make lithium-ion technology dependable. He also doesn’t believe this is a reason for customers to give up on Samsung. “They’re an organisation with a long history of manufacturing safe and reliable products,” he said.

 

What do we think?

The experts are correct, lithium-ion batteries are a great technology, especially when considering its still relatively new to us; however, we say it’s not just the responsibility of the manufacturers to make our devices safe. It is a perfectly sen

sible thing to take precautions with a product like the Fire Protect Bag.

To use a large holdall size bag for a phone would be impractical, though, which is why we are looking into producing a smaller size bag which would be aimed at smartphones and tablets.

We aim to have these available within the next couple of days.

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