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When Phones Explode

Overheard: “I’d buy a Samsung Note7, but they explode.” No, they don’t. Defective lithium-ion batteries explode. This is an important distinction. And regardless of the sensationalist claims you’ve heard from ratings-seekers and clickbaiters, lithium-ion batteries don’t explode very often. Here’s what you need to know.

From Smartphones to Electric Cars

There are hundreds of millions of lithium-ion batteries manufactured each year. They offer an attractive cost-to-power ratio, and you’ll find them in almost every kind of rechargeable device, including smartphones, laptops, drones, flashlights, e-cigs and even your new Tesla.

How Lithium-ion Batteries Work

Lithium-ion batteries have two electrodes (a cathode and an anode) separated by a barrier called an electrolyte. When you charge a lithium-ion battery, ions of lithium move through the electrolyte from the positive electrode to the negative electrode. And you guessed it: when you are using the battery, lithium ions move back through the electrolyte from the negative electrode to the positive electrode.

Lithium-ion batteries offer many advantages:

  • Light weight
  • Very high energy density
  • Low maintenance compared with most other battery chemistries
  • No memory effect (you do not have to train them; just don’t overcharge them or completely drain them)
  • Lower environmental impact (relatively speaking) when disposed of

Of course, lithium-ion batteries also have some disadvantages:

  • Require a protection circuit (to prevent overcharging and overheating)
  • Subject to aging (two- to three-year lifespan)
  • Constantly evolving chemistries and designs
  • More expensive to manufacture than other rechargeable batteries
  • Subject to transportation restrictions (usually not applied to personal-sized batteries)
  • Will die if completely drained (protection circuits are designed to prevent this)

Why Do Lithium-ion Batteries Explode?

The two chemicals (often Lithium cobalt oxide, or LiCoO2, and carbon) that enable lithium-ion batteries to store and discharge energy are separated by a “separator.” The purpose of the separator is to prevent the electrodes from short-circuiting. If the separator is compromised (especially when the battery is fully charged), a significant amount of heat may be generated in a chemical chain reaction. This condition is known as a “thermal runaway.” In rare cases, this can cause the electrolyte to boil or the cell casing to rupture, or both. This could result in a fire or an explosion. Again, in a well-designed, well-manufactured battery, thermal runaways are extremely rare.

What Happened with the Samsung Note7 Batteries?

With hundreds of millions of lithium-ion batteries being manufactured each year, it is reasonable to assume that some defective units will find their way into the marketplace. Many major manufacturers such as HP, Sony, Toshiba and Panasonic have had lithium-ion recalls this year. Samsung identified the Note 7s containing the defective batteries (by serial number) and, in an abundance of caution, recalled every Note 7. If you have a Samsung Note7 purchased before September 15, 2016, you should exchange it for a new one.

Tim Baxter, president and COO of Samsung Electronics America, said, “To date, we already have exchanged 130,000 units—a fast and meaningful start. And with the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC) partnership, we will continue implementing corrective steps to exchange every single Note7 on the market. Consumers should visit samsung.com/us/note7recall for carrier and retailer specific instructions on how and where to exchange their Note7 device.”

Yes, but Are Samsung Phones Safe?

See, that’s the problem with sensational news stories. They’re all about the headline and less about the facts. Samsung recalled the Note7 because it identified a problem with a small number of batteries it installed in the devices. Samsungs don’t explode; defective lithium-ion batteries explode. And with billions of lithium-ion batteries in the marketplace, fires and explosions are so rare they make the news.

Responsible Lithium-ion Battery Ownership

To help avoid issues with your batteries, the CPSC recommends the following safety tips:

  • Only purchase batteries and chargers directly from the manufacturer or from a manufacturer-recommended source. Buying counterfeit or poorly manufactured batteries increases the chance of having an issue.
  • Do not let a loose battery come in contact with metal objects, such as coins, keys, or jewelry. Metal objects can cross the electrical connections and cause an incident if the internal protection circuitry isn’t functioning correctly.
  • Do not crush, puncture or put a high degree of pressure on the battery, as this can cause an internal short-circuit, resulting in overheating.
  • Do not place the phone or batteries in areas that may get very hot, such as on or near a cooking surface, cooking appliance, iron, radiator or the dashboard of your car in the summer.
  • If you drop your phone or laptop on a hard surface, it can potentially cause damage to the battery. If you suspect damage to the battery, take it to a service center for inspection.
  • If your phone gets wet, even if the device dries and operates normally, the battery contacts or circuitry could slowly corrode and pose a safety hazard.
  • And if you see any bulging, leakage or other abnormality from your battery, stop using it immediately.

Are the Replacement Samsung Note7s with Lithium-ion Batteries Safe?

The risk of a lithium-ion battery fire or explosion is so low, I am happy to carry a smartphone in my pocket (all the time). As for the Note7, if you have one purchased before September 15, 2016, send it back and get a new one. If you’re wondering if the new ones will be safe, the short answer is YES. And not to put too fine a point on it, the Note7 has a 3.5mm headphone jack, and Bluetooth, and a USB C port AND you can charge it on a charging pad, which means unlike the iPhone 7, you can listen to music or talk on the phone while charging it. (If you do not understand my reference to the iPhone 7 in the preceding sentence, please read this article for clarification.)

Author’s note: This is not a sponsored post. I am the author of this article and it expresses my own opinions. I am not, nor is my company, receiving compensation for it.

The post When Phones Explode originally appeared here on Shelly Palmer

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Shelly Palmer is the host of Fox Television’s "Shelly Palmer Digital Living" television show about living and working in a digital world. He is Fox 5′s (WNYW-TV New York) Tech Expert and the host of United Stations Radio Network’s, MediaBytes, a daily syndicated radio report that features insightful commentary and a unique insiders take on the biggest stories in technology, media, and entertainment.