BOOM: An explosive conversation about batteries

Technology Decoded IMAGEBy Paolo Chlebecek

OH NO! My phone just exploded!

Let’s hope you never have to say that. But it seems, from all the news coverage, amid the other disasters, that exploding phones, laptops and “hoverboards” and even cars, are indeed a hot topic. (Pun intended.) Why? How can something seemingly harmless become so dangerous quite spontaneously?

First, you need to understand what’s in a typical cellphone or modern battery-operated device. Most rechargeable devices use a lithium-ion or li-ion, or even ‘ion battery. (Is it a coincidence that “lion” is used for these roaring exploding batteries? I think not. …)

There are literally hundreds of millions of these types of batteries produced every year, so, of course, issues are bound to arise. These batteries were proposed by M. S. Whittingham while he was working for Exxon back in the 1970s. But it wasn’t until 1991 that the first commercial lithium-ion battery was produced by Sony. There are several types of lithium-ion batteries with different chemical compounds and construction to reach their desired voltage, size, recharge ability, and longevity.

As you probably know, all batteries have a positive (+) and negative (-) connection. The negative electrode of a typical lithium-ion cell is made from carbon. The positive electrode is a metal oxide, and the electrolyte, or capacity for holding a charge, is a lithium salt in a solvent. Guess what? Under the right — or wrong — conditions those chemicals can be very dangerous, obviously.

How does it happen? There’s a chain reaction that can occur in just a few milliseconds that produces a domino effect. That thermal runaway condition produces tremendous heat very quickly, then … boom! Your pants are on fire! Uh oh, did you lie? Maybe you’re fond of keeping your phone shoved in your back pocket? If an improperly manufactured phone has a short circuit, or failed insulation barrier, it can cause this terrible, terrifying situation.

Researchers regularly test batteries of all kinds to determine their safety. They usually artificially heat them up or short circuit them, which is to force the positive and negative connections to touch. For reference and examination, researches record what happens with a high speed camera. Simply said, all of these failures occur because one portion of the battery gets too hot for various reasons and can’t cool down. This creates a chain reaction that generates more and more heat that leads to an eventual explosion or meltdown.

How can you keep your precious devices from exploding? Sadly, if there is a defect in a battery you won’t know until it’s too late. As often recommended, quality certified cables and chargers — preferably the charger and cable that came with your device — are always recommended. And a little common sense helps, too. If a device gets really hot, safely unplug it from the charger. Turn it off if possible, let it cool, and call an expert to help determine if there’s a real danger.

So all of this information begs the question: Can safer batteries be made? The answer is yes, they already are safer to some degree. In my massive flashlight collection, most of the higher end units require there to be a protection circuit built in to the battery or cell, itself, to prevent overcharge, undercharge, and short circuit. If not, the “smart” flashlight will not operate because the tiny computer inside cannot detect the battery’s protection circuitry. So why don’t all lithium-ion batteries have this? Many do, but like most things, it comes down to cost. The requirement and implementation of a protection circuit probably won’t even add up to more than $1 or $2 to the overall cost of a battery, but that could be the entire profit margin in some cases.

But the Samsung batteries have a protection circuit built in like most current cell phones, don’t they? Yes, but again shoddy manufacturing processes and poor handling procedures can add up to make this exploding debacle a reality. Of the 2.5 million phones produced and now recalled by Samsung, only 100 or so are reported as being defective and actually exploding as of the time this was written.

Still, if I had one, I wouldn’t wait a moment longer to return it. Sorry Samsung, a swing and a miss, then … boom!


Paolo Chlebecek is founder and owner of PaoloTek, which he started in 2003. He loves to be helpful to people and our animal friends.  Feel free to contact him at Paolo@PaoloTek.Com.

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