Concerns over the safety of lithium ion batteries continue to emerge following recent, high-profile problems with Samsung smartphones, self-balancing hoverboards and electronic cigarettes, which have caused consumers to suffer severe burns and other injuries when the batteries in these consumer electronic devices exploded or caught on fire.
Years ago, a steady stream of laptop recalls were issued amid reports of overheating and catching fire. But over the past year, recalls have been issued for other consumer devices, with videos appearing online of hoverboards and e-cigs, or vaping devices, catching on fire. The popular Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone is now the latest device to start exploding.
They all have one thing in common: lithium ion batteries. And some experts and consumer groups are beginning to raise concerns that the focus should be more on the batteries, and less on the devices they appear to be causing to explode.
Lithium ion batteries, first developed in the 1970s, are small, rechargeable, and long-lasting. And some say they are part of the reason high-end wireless technology can do all that it can do. Some even predict they will eventually drive a successful electric automobile revolution. However, the chemicals used in the battery, which are necessary to make it work, are often highly flammable.
If the battery is manufactured correctly, handled correctly and integrated into the devices correctly, they work fine. If one of those processes fails, the results can be explosive.
Usually, lithium ion battery problems have been linked to a faulty manufacturing process, where the batteries are made without a high degree of quality control.
However, experts warn that there are many things that can set the batteries off, including:
- Damage to the battery
- Recharging the battery too fast
- Improper disposal
- High Heat
- Placing the device in a pocket with metal coins
The battery explosions can occur because of short circuits, or when the materials inside the battery ignite due to a chemical process called thermal runaway.
Well constructed batteries have safety features preventing these problems. However, many of the batteries are manufactured cheaply overseas, or are not properly integrated into the devices in which they are meant to be used.
When lithium ion batteries explode, the public tends to focus on the device, and not the battery itself.
Samsung Galaxy Note 7 Fires and Recall
The latest victims are both Samsung and a number of its customers. On September 2, Samsung issued a recall for its Galaxy Note 7 smartphone after videos surfaced online of the devices exploding and catching fire. The company told customers to immediately power down the devices and exchange them.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) followed with a consumer warning on September 9. In addition, the FAA issued an advisory to passengers not to turn them on or charge them onboard aircraft, and to not stow them in checked baggage.
At least three dozen Samsung Galaxy Note 7s have been reported to have caught fire or exploded, and the company has lost $25 billion of its market value as its stocks dropped 11%.
The company also faces its first Samsung Galaxy explosion lawsuit, filed by an Ohio man whose phone began whistling and making unusual noises in his pocket before it burst into flames and then exploded. He suffered burns to his hand, thigh, groin, and lower back. However, his phone was a Galaxy S7 Edge, not a Note 7, which may suggest the problem is much more far reaching for Samsung than first believed.
It is likely the first of a number of lawsuits to be filed against the company over the recall, which could take the form of product liability lawsuits from injured consumers, class action recalls from those who believe they were cheated and paid a premium for the phones, and investor lawsuits over the company’s plummeting value.
Hoverboard Fires and Recalls
While it is unlikely that, despite their wide use of lithium ion batteries, smartphones in general will disappear from the market, some other products have not been so fortunate.
In July, the CPSC announced a nationwide hoverboard recall, following numerous reports of overheating and fires. More than a dozen different manufacturers and brands were affected, effectively wiping hoverboards off the U.S. market just as they were becoming widely popular.
Self-balancing scooters, more commonly known as hoverboards, have two wheels at either end of the platform and are powered by lithium-ion battery packs.
The CPSC indicates that there have been nearly 100 reports of the lithium ion battery packs overheating, sparking, smoking, catching fire or exploding. The agency investigated more than 60 fires reportedly started by hoverboards.
The incidents have resulted in injuries to users, including burns to the legs, arms, and neck. The incidents have also caused severe property damage.
Vape Fires and Explosions
It is unlikely that electronic cigarettes will suffer the same fate, as there are far too many manufacturers, types, and brands, and many are “kit-bashed” collections of different parts assembled by users and in vape or tobacco shops.
The FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products released a report in March in the journal Tobacco Control that identified at least 92 reports of electronic cigarette explosions between 2009 and September 2015. However this report is considered to be outdated and severely unrealistic of the number of injuries caused by the devices.
Other reports have placed the number of incidents much higher. A report in April by Ecigone.com indicated there had been nearly 160 exploding or combusting e-cig incidents reported through the media at that time, with many likely going unreported due to the user’s right to privacy or embarrassment to report.
Many people support e-cigarettes as a safer alternative to tobacco cigarettes while others turn to the devices to help them quit smoking traditional cigarettes. However, a study published last year revealed e-cigarettes may be just as addictive as traditional cigarettes and release ten times the amount of some cancer-causing agents.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have estimated that nearly 15% of U.S. adults have tried the popular e-cigarettes at least once and estimate nearly 4 percent of the population are regular users.
In May, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) banned all forms of electronic smoking devices from checked baggage on aircrafts, and e-cigarette devices and batteries may not be charged aboard any aircraft. The rule was finalized by the agency following several recent reports of e-cigarettes catching on fire inside of checked luggage.