Samsung Note 7 Battery Explosions: Is “Fast Charging” Tech To Blame?
“Whatever the cause, we see this as the thin side of the wedge and will be releasing a smaller Fire Protect Bag for Smartphones and Tablets to Stop a potentially bigger issue than exploding hoverboards!”
Nobody; not even Samsung knows specifically why the Galaxy Note 7 have been exploding into flames, although there are some theories:
One of the main things Samsung talked about during a pre-launch announcement on its Note 7 back in July was the battery and its new “fast-charging” technology. The message was pretty clear: “Our new phone has a bigger battery than the Apple iPhone 7 and charges up faster as well!”
This new speciality has matched one of the main theories on why the battery in the Note 7 held a tendency to blow up; a malfunction that required one of the most significant and costliest product recalls in history.
Conclusively, the reason Samsung took the dramatic move to discontinue the Note 7 was that it was unable to pinpoint with any certainty the reasons behind the batteries blowing up. As Samsung engineers fought to recreate the problem, the pressure increased from regulators and the media to make a decisive move.
Subsequent to the first wave of Note 7 explosions being reported, Samsung believed to know what the problem was. On September 2, when asked for an explanation of the Note 7 battery problem, the company returned:
“An overheating of the battery cell transpired when the anode-to-cathode came into contact which is a very rare manufacturing process error.”
Samsung believed at the time the predicament was occurring only in batteries made by its SDI subsidiary. So it set about reorganising all the suspected phones with ones including batteries made by another supplier, Amperex Technology Ltd., a subsidiary of TDK. The idea of SDI botching the production of the batteries seems rather odd because, as IDC analyst Will Stofega pointed out, the ATL has a long history of manufacturing batteries that work and don’t blow up.
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On 23rd of September, reports of the modified phones were also blowing up began coming in. Today, Samsung has a far less of a straightforward answer to the question.
“A thorough investigation takes time, and it would be untimely to speculate on outcomes of the investigation,” a Samsung spokesperson said in an email statement Wednesday. “In the U.S. we have received a small number of related cases of issues with replacement Note 7 devices. We are working around the clock to examine the causes of the reported cases.”
The New York Times has reported that many Samsung engineers have been attempting to replicate the fault that caused the SDI and ATL batteries to explode but have failed. So on the day the Galaxy Note 7 became a discontinued product, the cause of its demise remained a big fat question mark.
Theory One, Battery Design Flaw:
Many theories have surfaced over the past few weeks about why both the ATL and SDI batteries were exploding. One theory is that it was the design of the battery and not the manufacturing process as Samsung originally said, that caused the problem. The design of the battery could have been completed by Samsung engineers then supplied to SDI and ATL to manufacture according to spec.
Theory Two, Phone Design Changes:
A Korean government regulator reasoned that the negative and positively charged plates inside the batteries were too close to each other at the rounded edges of the phone. When positive and negative poles of lithium batteries physically touch, a very violent and rapid chemical reaction takes place. The regulator also pointed to a defective coating on the negative electrode.
The reason these findings are fascinating is because they suggest that the phone’s overall design may be influencing the safety of the battery. The plates being too close together may have occurred from the intense competitive pressure to build ever thinner phones. And not just thinner phones, but phones that also carry more components. The Note 7, for example, had a new iris scanner on board and also retained the analogue headphone jack, which takes up a lot of space. The regulator also pointed to the battery design within the phone’s rounded edges—another new design trait in the Note 7.
Theory Three: Fast Charging
There is also a strong market demand for phones that charge faster, and it’s Samsung’s endeavour to meet this demand that may be the most compelling reason for the explosions. Samsung said its new fast-charging technology lets the battery in the Note 7 charge up to 50% capacity in 30 minutes.
Here is how fast-charging happens, USB chargers with special circuitry built in can send a higher power output into the smartphone. Any charger with an output greater than 10 watts is considered “fast charging.” The Galaxy Note 7 uses a USB – C charger with fast-charging technology inside. Specialist power management chips inside the phone moderate the power level it can handle without overcharging the battery or overheating the phone.
When battery manufacturers say “vent with flame,” they mean “explode.”
Qualcomm supplies the Snapdragon 820 processor and various power management chips for one of the two versions of the Note 7. The company points out, however, that those chips aren’t involved in the regulation of power flowing into the battery during charging. “Qualcomm does not provide any battery charging electronics commonly used in both versions of the Note 7,” a Qualcomm spokesperson said in an email.
Qualcomm also points out that the power management chips supplied for the Note 7 are also used in other phones (Samsung’s Galaxy S7, the S7 Edge, Xiaomi’s Mi-Max, and ZTE Nubia Z9) that do not blow up. Qualcomm’s Quick-Charge technology was indeed used in a version of the Note 7, but only for the protocol used in communication between the various power management chips in the phone.
Lithium-ion batteries contain three main parts: a positive electrode made from Lithium cobalt oxide, a negative electrode made from carbon, and a separator layer made from micro perforated plastic. The layers are submerged in an organic solvent substance. While charging, lithium ions move through the plastic barrier layer from the positive lithium electrode and join to the negative carbon electrode. When the battery is used the opposite happens: Lithium ions cross back over to the positive electrode.
Lithium-ion batteries can become volatile if charged at a higher than specified voltage. The cathode material can turn into an oxidising agent, losing its stability and producing carbon dioxide. If the pressure within the cell continues to rise, a safety interrupt is supposed to kick in. If such an interrupt fails to happen for whatever reason, the pressure within the cell can continue rising and burst the safety membrane around the cell, causing the cell to “vent with flame.” When battery manufacturers say “vent with flame,” they mean “explode.”
“It casts a cloak over the whole fast-charging technology; you have to be concerned,” remarks Steve Rizzone, CEO of the wireless charging tech supplier Energous. “The whole notion of rapid charging is going to have a negative connotation to it,” Rizzone says the problem points to the demand for a new way of charging devices. While the technology has yet to be produced, Rizzone believes the over-the-air charging Energous is developing will let users constantly be “topping up” their phone’s battery, which would lighten the load on the battery.
The Limits of Lithium-ion
So the Note 7 failure, whatever the exact cause, could have been the result of a smartphone producer trying to respond to the desires of the marketplace and simply demanding too much of the battery technology we have today. “What you are seeing more and more that powering bigger batteries, and charging those batteries faster; the battery chemistry can’t keep up with those demands,” Rizzone states.
Lithium-ion batteries are more stable and safer than earlier battery technology, but there are limits to the significance of miniaturisation, power capacity, and rate of charging that phone creators can impose on them.
Perhaps it was inevitable; maybe Samsung was just unfortunate enough to be the first phone maker to run smack into the wall, the outer limits of what lithium-ion technology can safely be asked to do.
What do we say?
Again, our position on this has not changed. If you own any devices which the manufacturers are recalling, return them as soon as possible. But whatever phone you have, or any lithium-ion powered device you have, get yourself a Fire Protect Bag and give yourself peace of mind that your loved ones can be kept safe.
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