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The volatile truth about Smartphone batteries

Samsung’s been having a grievous time with its Galaxy Note 7 – a phablet with impressive specs and performance ratings, if not for one fatal flaw. The Korean company had to implement a worldwide recall of the Note 7 handsets due to exploding battery fears. Memes and jokes making fun of the product abound in the Internet, and airlines even issue warnings against bringing the Note 7 on their flights. Intended as a flagship product, the Note 7 is turning out to be a marketing nightmare.

However, Samsung’s problem is hardly unique, with modern society overwhelmingly dependent on ambulatory power consumption. Rechargeable Lithium-ion batteries are the standard now, and we use them not just in cellphones but also in cars and in airplanes. And any Lithium-ion battery – regardless of the company who made it – has the potential to come to an abrupt end in fire and detonation.

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This isn’t apocalyptic prediction, it’s simply a function of chemistry. Lithium’s high electrochemical potential makes it ideal for making high-capacity batteries; unfortunately, it’s also exceedingly incendiary and reactive. As The Verge published, “The same chemical properties that make batteries work also make them likely to catch fire.” However, it is important to note that while any Lithium-ion battery can ignite, it isn’t very likely to happen.

So what causes Lithium-ion battery explosions? It’s an indirect result of what customers demand, manufacturers giving in to the pressure, and how end-users use their batteries.

While manufacturers have continually pushed battery technology over the years, there really hasn’t been any fundamental technological leap in recent memory. To eke out more performance, manufacturers essentially use the same rechargeable cells, but find ways to improve it by modifying the packaging, reducing the size, and squeezing them in more tightly. The upside to this is battery that packs more punch; the downside is the increased potential for disaster.

If (for any reason) a battery cell malfunctions and overheats, the danger lies in it affecting the other cells near it. Like dominoes falling or a rolling pebble snowballing into an avalanche, everything can go wrong if an unfortunate series of events – a thermal runaway – happens.

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Geek.com explains, “A defective or improperly-handled battery can overheat, causing the cells to break open and result in a chain reaction of other cells rupturing. This is called thermal runaway, and it’s the cause of most battery explosions and, less dramatically, battery swelling. The defect can be a simple short circuit, or a design defect that improperly insulates individual cells from the heat of neighbors. That’s what causes cell phones and laptops to catch fire on rare occasions.”In defective batteries, thermal runaway could happen due to an internal short circuit, or if the input current or voltage levels aren’t correctly calibrated.

The key to mitigating thermal runaway is in the design of the battery. Elon Musk, the main guy behind Tesla Motors and SpaceX, and the closest thing to a real-life Tony Stark, designed his Tesla batteries to have thousands of small cells insulated from each other (instead of having several large ‘blocks’). Musk’s design is aimed to help prevent thermal runaway.

On another front, Live Science quoted Paul Shearing, a chemical engineer at the University College London, on how we can minimize the potential for battery explosion.”The presence of certain safety features can mitigate against the spread of some of this thermal runaway process. Those features include mechanical supports inside the battery,” said Shearing.

Overcharging is another possible cause of battery explosion. This isn’t when you leave your phone charging too long – most modern batteries are designed to prevent that entirely predictable occurrence. Overcharging happens when the circuitry that’s designed to prevent too much Lithium from going into the anode fails to do its job.

Aside from shortcomings in the manufacturing design, the speed of battery charging can also affect Lithium-ion batteries. KatyannaQuach of The Register also warned against fast-charging. “If the charging process happens too quickly, embedded lithium ions can accumulate and microscopic fibres called dendrites start sprouting from the anode that can pierce the separator, and begin extending to the cathode. An electrical current passing through these dendrites can short-circuit the battery. If the current is not controlled, the increased temperature can lead to metallic lithium deposits forming in the graphene structure, which could make the explosions potentially more dangerous.” Moreover, if the charger you’re using is mismatched with the battery (like when you borrow your officemate’s charger because you forgot yours), there’s a chance that the battery will fry.

And then, there are the accidents – like when your car crashes, and your battery cell is punctured and the cell becomes exposed to moisture in the air. Extreme conditions like this could also lead to adverse chemical reactions on the battery.

Thankfully, accidents are rare. More often than not, it’s our insatiable demand for higher capacity, fast-charging, cheap batteries on our handsets that drive manufacturers to squeeze every iota that they can from batteries.

The Verge’sAngela Chen and Lauren Goode said it well – “Exploding batteries can be the consequence of overeager companies pushing technology to the limit. As our screens get bigger and phones more powerful, they need more energy, but most of us are unwilling to give up battery life or charging speed.” As competing brands scramble to give in to our demands, we can expect more battery failures in the future.

This should not be the case. Customers demanding more for their hard-earned money is only natural; responsible companies should know better and protect customers from their own demands. Until battery technology gets a critical breakthrough that would make it a lot safer, we all need to realize that there’s a limit on what we can coax out of our Lithium-ions.