Samsung Phones Explode: A Look at Battery Technology

Samsung Phones Explode: A Look at Battery Technology

By Rajeswari Jayaraman

In the aftermath of over 100 reported incidents of Galaxy Note 7 explosions worldwide, Samsung has permanently stopped their Note 7 productions. The South Korean tech giant is forced to recall all the sold units just two months after its official release. That’s about one million of the 2.5 million manufactured units. After the first recall, the company decided to ship Galaxy Note 7 units containing batteries from a different supplier. However, there were reports of explosions even from these supposedly safe replacement units. The company is unable to explain the cause of overheating and explosion and is still investigating the matter.

The limitations phone manufacturers have to fight with are determined by the laws of physics:

Lithium-Ion Batteries: How They Work

Phones typically use lithium-ion batteries. A typical cell consists of a cathode (positive side) and an anode (negative side) separated by an ultrathin sheet of plastic (thinner than a human hair). The lithium ions float from one side to the other through an electrolyte (a highly flammable liquid). A battery short circuit can occur if the thin plastic sheet, for example, is pierced at a point providing zero resistance for electricity flow. Such microscale short circuits can cause the electrolyte to heat up and eventually lead to an explosion of the battery.

Why are the Galaxy Note 7 Phones Exploding?

There could be several reasons for the explosion of the Galaxy  Note 7 as Samsung tried to push the capacities of their batteries harder. For instance, it could be the result of insufficient insulation of the electrodes, making the plastic sheet separator extremely thin, or using a less stable electrolyte. Also, solutions with high densities of lithium tend to form lithium metal spikes called “dendrites” that can pierce through the separator creating a short circuit. The real reason for the failure is what Samsung, government agencies and researchers around the world are still searching to figure out.

What Does This Mean For Customers and Developers?

The actual problem could be more complicated than just battery-related issues, but certainly, the scaling of power density per volume has reached a turning point.

Similar to silicon-based processor technology, the downscaling of the size per operation seems to reach a crucial limit also for ion-based battery cells. While alternative processor technologies are emerging (spintronics) for computing, chemically saved power is still awaiting for an industrial breakthrough of alternative concepts. Specialized capacitors could point to one solution, but commercialization is still subject to entrepreneurs in the future.

Eventually, customers are forced to use power banks or frequently recharge their limited-size battery cells.

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