In August, 2016, Samsung released their new Note 7 cell phone to rave reviews with some reviewers calling it the best phone ever. Then disaster struck. Consumers inundated Samsung with stories of the battery on the Note 7 exploding or catching fire. In early September, Samsung announced that it was recalling about 2.5 million Note 7 cell phones calling them a serious fire hazard.
Many countries are involved in this recall. In the U.S., the battery issue applies to the Samsung Galaxy Note7 devices sold before September 15th. If you purchased a Note 7 before that date, your first question is what to do. The answer is stop using the phone immediately, power it down, and visit Samsung’s Safety Recall Exchange Information website to learn how to trade the phone in or get a refund.
How a Lithium-ion Battery Works
Even if you did not purchase a Note 7, you are probably asking “How does something like this happen?” To answer that question we have to look at how a lithium ion battery works.
Batteries work by creating energy when electrons move from one end of the battery to the other. These “ends” are called electrodes, one anode and the other cathode. In between the anode and the cathode is a liquid electrolyte. In a lithium-ion battery the electrolyte is a salt solution that contains lithium ions. Hence the name, lithium-ion battery.
The positively charged lithium ions are attracted to and move towards the cathode. As the ions collect there the cathode becomes more positively charged than the anode and it starts to attract negatively charged electrons. The flowing electrons generate the power to run our device.
There are of course safety membranes to contain the electrolyte solution and there is also an internal circuit to stop the charging process at full charge. This circuit in a lithium ion battery prevents overcharging which will cause the lithium-ion battery to overheat which will result in a fire or explosion.
The Cause of the Problem
In this case, the internal circuit that stops the battery from overcharging and the membranes that contain the liquid electrolyte are the most likely culprits. If there is a manufacturing flaw in either of these components, explosions and fire will be the likely results. Samsung has announced that they have uncovered the cause of the battery fires, but they have not yet made that news public.
Now, almost a month after the start of the recall, Samsung has announced that only 60% of the defective phones sold in South Korea and the U.S. have been exchanged with new models. This means that 40 percent of these dangerous devices are still in consumer hands. If you have one of these phones or know someone who has one, please make sure that they are returned. Samsung has stated that they are certain that the new phones they are distributing wouldn’t have the same flaws.
Lithium-ion Batteries in Space
Because lithium-ion batteries are rechargeable and because they currently give more bang for the buck (no pun intended), they are extremely popular. Today they are used in electronic equipment from cell phones and computers to cars and power tools. They are even used in space. Currently NASA is preparing to replace the space station’s aging nickel-hydrogen battery packs with new lithium-ion units. This is scheduled to take lace sometime in 2017.
The Safety of Lithium-ion Batteries
Lithium-ion batteries have proven to be safe, but the sheer number of lithium-ion batteries in use today and the millions of batteries that are produced everyday opens the possibility of manufacturing defects. In the case of cell phones, the constant competitive pressure to make the phones (and therefore the batteries) smaller and smaller and to produce them quickly to stay ahead of the competition, increase the odds of manufacturing mistakes. Yet, this Samsung incident is certainly a heads-up to everyone in the industry.
Update: October 10, 2016
Although Samsung considered the replacement phones safe, several of them also caught fire. As of October 10, 2016 Samsung halted all sales of Note 7 phones. We believe that in light of recent happenings, this was a good more for Samsung to make. If you still have a Note 7, whether original or replacement, please power it down and contact the place you bought it for a refund or to obtain another model or brand of phone.