When consumers purchase products, they expect them to function the way the products are advertised to function. Unless this product is a lighter, grill, or gas lamp of some sort, typically this expected function does not include spontaneous combustion. However, sometimes products malfunction and things happen, just like things happened to Samsung on September 2, 2016 when they announced a global recall on one of their flagship phones, the Note7. At that time, more than 35 phones had caught fire due to a lithium-ion battery cell issue. They immediately stopped selling the phone, as did all major cell carriers, and promised to replace users’ current devices with new ones in the coming weeks.
Provided no one is seriously injured from the battery issue, it sounds like Samsung has a hold on the situation for now. But, consumers may feel like they are experiencing a little de ja vu. It was just two months ago, in July 2016, when 10 different brands of hoverboards (self-balancing scooters) were recalled because of their lithium-ion battery’s tendency to catch on fire. More than 500,000 total boards, many purchased as Christmas presents just months prior, were overheating and thus, smoking, catching fire, or exploding.
Think back a little further to May 2016. Consumers may have heard of another trendy product catching on fire or exploding – electronic cigarettes. If it sounds scary for your phone to catch on fire while in your pocket or for a hoverboard to smoke while you’re using it, imagine something exploding while it is in your mouth. Third degree burns, typically requiring skin grafts which leave a significant scar, resulted from these injuries.
There are many more examples of lithium-ion battery fires, from numerous laptop computers (brands include HP, Sony, Toshiba, Panasonic, and more) to electric bicycles and from plug-in electric vehicles (such as the Tesla Model S) to SLR cameras. Even Boeing got caught up in a lithium-ion battery malfunction when the 787 Dreamliner model planes were grounded in 2013. For an extensive list of recalls, visit the Consumer Product Safety Commission website.
So, what exactly are lithium-ion batteries? Also known as Li-ion batteries or LIB, they belong to the family of rechargeable batteries wherein lithium ions move from the negative to positive electrode during discharge and then back when placed on the charger. BatteryUniversity.com ponders if Lithium-ion is the ideal battery, as it is the most popular battery with the most promising battery chemistry. Commercialized in 1991 by the Sony Corporation, the energy density of the lithium-ion battery is twice that of the standard nickel-cadmium, meaning it requires less cells (and thus less space) to create the same amount of power than its predecessor. Lithium-ion batteries are also low maintenance. They don’t require memory or scheduled cycling and do not cause major environmental harm when disposed. However, lithium-ion batteries also have their disadvantages. They tend to be fragile, require a protection circuit to operate safely, and are known to produce extremely hot temperatures, as shown in recent news stories.
According to a Techlicious, the fires and explosions occur when the preventative circuitry inside the battery is damaged and the battery overheats, resulting in “thermal runaway.” In thermal runaway, a chemical process occurs in which the battery generates heat, causing more chemical reactions which generate more heat, and heat keeps on generating until the battery finally explodes. This Techlicious article was written in 2013 and cites that more than 40 lithium-ion recalls occurred between 2002 and 2013; these incidents have since increased exponentially.
In some products, such as hoverboards and e-cigarettes, it is likely that poor design of the product, in addition to the battery, was at least partially to blame. However, it is becoming clearer with each incident that the lithium-ion battery can be dangerous when not used properly. Whose responsibility is it to ensure that these batteries don’t cause explosions – the designers and manufacturers of a product that uses the battery, or the battery makers themselves? The problems that persist, however, are that battery technology has been slow to advance (supposedly partially due to testing – but if so, how are lithium-ion batteries making the cut?), lithium ion batteries are efficient and easy to create, and most significantly, they can be manufactured very cheaply. But at what cost?