Lithium Ion Batteries - Born in Corruption, Consumed By Fire, Covered Up By Congress

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Blame Lithium Batteries for Samsung Note 7 Fires

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Chris Wiltz, Managing Editor, Design News
11/1/2016  

 


 

major recall of Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phones could also be a wakeup call for manufacturers and consumers about lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries.

 

"My brand new Note 7 exploded this morning while I was still asleep, it was plugged in and charging." So begins a Reddit post from a user in Australia, detailing how a Samsung Galaxy Note 7 caught fire in a hotel room -- causing $1,800 in damage.

 

An image of a damaged Samsung Galaxy Note 7 shows that the overheating began at the center of the Li-ion battery.

(Source: Reddit user -- Crushader)

The Reddit post, made in September, was the first noted case in Australia but it would be far from the last in the world. According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, beginning in mid-September Samsung received 96 reports of Note 7 phones overheating, of those 13 resulted in burn injuries and 47 in some type of property damage.

On Sept. 15, Samsung initiated a recall of the Note 7, offering to replace units for customers. But in early October the Note 7 made its biggest headlines when a replacement model phone started emitting smoke on a Southwest Airlines flight from Louisville to Baltimore. Airlines subsequently banned the Note 7 from flights and Samsung would go on to recall all of its Note 7 models, including the replacements -- a total of 1.9 million phones, according to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Initially Samsung stayed quiet on what was causing the phones to overheat, but after dozens of pictures of burnt out Note 7s were posted online, Internet sleuths were able to figure out the problem. Noting where the burn marks appear, a technology reviewer on YouTube who goes by the name JerryRigEverything deduced that the failure was happening with the phone's lithium-ion battery itself and not with the charging port or any part of the motherboard, which were also potential points of failure.

South Korea-based Samsung has since acknowledged that the problem is with the battery but hasn't gone deep into specifics. However, Bloomberg obtained documents from Korea's Agency for Technology and Standards saying the overheating was being caused by a lack of insulation between the battery's positive and negative electrodes, which created a short. Chris Robinson, research analyst at Lux Research, told Design News that battery shorts like this are common, but there could be more to these Samsung incidents. "A battery short is a common mode of failure, which results when electrical contact is made between the positive and negative electrodes. This oftentimes is caused by a manufacturing defect, such as a contaminant getting into the manufacturing process, but in this case there may be more to the Samsung story," Robinson said via email. "The replacement batteries started catching fire, which could indicate a larger problem with the design of the handset."


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Of course, the Note 7 is only the latest in what has been a series of recent lithium-ion-related issues in consumer products. Back in 2012 the Fisker Karma was recalled because of battery overheating issues. In 2013 a Tesla Model S caught fire, revealing a design flaw in which the vehicle's battery pack wasn't properly shielded against road debris that could potentially puncture it. And just last Christmas the hottest item on the shelves -- the hoverboard -- had its hype train derailed when reports started surfacing of shoddy knockoff products with defective lithium-ion batteries catching fire.

It really brings to question why we rely on such a potentially volatile solution for our battery needs. But Robinson said that issues with lithium-ion batteries do not happen at random. "These incidents are problems given how much we use electronic devices and the severity of the fires, but Li-ion batteries can be made safe. However, with Li-ion battery fires there is almost always a reason why they catch fire -- it's not just a random event," he said. "Considering the hoverboard fires, they were caused by mostly Chinese Li-ion manufacturers with poor quality control and no established track record of making volumes of batteries, who hoverboard manufacturers turned to as Li-ion demand increased ahead of rushing these products to market ahead of the holiday season. Fisker battery fires were caused by coolant leaks which led to batteries overheating, and several Tesla fires were related to external damaging of the battery from debris or a crash."

READ MORE ABOUT LI-ION BATTERIES ON DESIGN NEWS:

"The key component which prevents shorting, a major failure mode of batteries, is the separator," Robinson said. "Many use a polymer separator, but ceramics have been of some interest to the industry for improved safety and durability. However, these add weight and cost to the battery, which is why most companies forego their use." He suggested that, moving forward, these types of separators may become more attractive to companies looking to increase product safety. Next-generation chemistries, things like solid-state batteries, could also be an option. "This also could allow for improved energy density," Robinson said. "But these batteries are not manufactured at the large scale required to supply cell phones, and also add significant costs.

Right now, despite any risks, Li-ion batteries are still the best choice for consumer products and electric vehicles since they offer the best balance of energy and power density and lifecycle. "Previous chemistries, primarily NiMH batteries, could only offer about half of the performance relative to size and weight that Li-ion batteries can provide." Robinson said.

However, as consumers demand products that are not only higher performing but also increasingly light and thin, we may be putting a greater burden on OEMs as far as ensuring product safety. Cramming a battery into a smaller and smaller space while still demanding more power and performance also opens the door for the sort of incidents seen with the Note 7. The Note 7, for example, is Samsung's lightest and thinnest Note model yet (by a small margin), but also has more sensors, a better camera, and more hard drive storage space.

"As manufacturers push for lighter and thinner phones that does make both the battery and system design more difficult," Robinson said. "Batteries must be kept fairly cool to prevent thermal runaway, which leads to fires, and increasingly small space make this difficult. Furthermore, on the cell level, manufacturers try to use the thinnest and cheapest separators as possible, since they add weight, volume, and price to the cell."

Chris Wiltz is the Managing Editor of Design News

Boosted tells people to stop riding its electric skateboards after lithium ion battery explosions

by Rich McCormick

Samsung isn't the only tech company having problems with flaming batteries. Boosted, the maker of some of the better electric skateboards on the market, has warned customers to stop riding and charging its second-generation devices after two separate incidents in which lithium-ion batteries were found to have "vented" inside their enclosures.

Nobody was injured and no property was damaged in the incidents, Boosted says, but in a warning posted on its official site it requests that owners move their boards away from flammable objects. People who do observe signs of battery venting — including smoke emanating from the enclosure or the battery pack becoming warm — should go even further, leaving their boards outside, and calling Boosted so its engineers can examine the device in question.

Nobody was hurt in the incidents

The water-resistant second-generation Boosted board was released in late August this year, and the company had promised an extended-range version — with a bigger battery — would ship in early 2017. Boosted has said it will stop shipping new boards to customers, but it hasn't yet confirmed whether the issues affect all of its newest boards, or whether it still plans to ship the extended-range devices in a few months.

Boosted says that its batteries are kept in enclosures made of fire-retardant composite, but however the situation shakes out — whether the company replaces the batteries or issues a full Note 7-style full recall of the devices — it's another public knock to the capabilities of lithium-ion cells.

E-cigarette users getting burned by exploding batteries

John Wisely , Detroit Free Press

 

The U.S. surgeon general is calling e-cigarettes an emerging public health threat to the nation's youth. USA TODAY

Some victims need skin grafts after suffering 3rd-degree burn when vaping pen's lithium ion batteries explode

 

(Photo: Courtesy of Scott Becker)

Story Highlights

  • Vaping popularity has soared in recent years.

  • E-cigarettes use batteries to generate the heat to form the vapor.

  • Lithium ion batteries can short circuit and explode.

  • Burn center officials say they are seeing more injuries related to batteries from e-cigarettes.

Scott Becker was sitting at conference table conducting a work meeting when the lithium ion battery that powers his e-cigarette exploded in his pocket.

"It was like having a firework go off in your pocket," said Becker, 46, of Washington Township. "I threw my chair back, I started hitting my pants and my hip. I saw the sparks shooting out of my jeans."

Beckers suffered third-degree burns and a year later, they still require treatment three times a day.

Injuries like Becker's are becoming more common, said Karla Klas, managing director for injury prevention and community outreach at the Trauma Burn Center at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The batteries can explode with enough force to knock out teeth and crack vertebrae if they fail in the mouth of the user.

 

Scott Becker, 46, of Washington Township, suffered a third-degree burn on his right hip last year when a battery he used in his vaping pen exploded. (Photo: handout, Scott Becker)

"We've been seeing some pretty deep burns," Klas said.

Klas made a presentation on the topic at the American Burn Association's annual conference last month in Boston. While she hasn't heard of any deaths caused by exploding e-cigarettes, an informal poll of representatives from about 20 burn centers around the country tallied almost 300 recent burn cases that required hospitalization, she said.

"Not only are the burns deep, but because of the chemicals that are in the batteries, it's almost like they are having a chemical burn on top of the thermal burn," Klass said.

The Federal Aviation Administration banned the devices from checked baggage because of the fire risk.

Read more:

Vaping proponents insist the incidents are rare and preventable through proper use of the products and their batteries.

"When used and charged properly, those lithium-ion batteries pose no more of a fire risk than other products that use other similar batteries," said Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, a nonprofit group that advocates vaping as a way to help people stop smoking. "It is a remote risk that is almost entirely avoidable."

Conley said he worries that exaggerated fears of fires could cause some people to avoid vaping and instead, continue a deadly habit, cigarette smoking. But critics say the problem is real and it's growing.

"Even if it's somewhat rare, these things are so dangerous that when it happens, these are horrific injuries," said Wolfgang Mueller, a Farmington Hills lawyer who has sued on behalf of three injury victims, including Becker.

Mueller, who worked as a mechanical engineer before studying law, said the batteries can short-circuit internally because of poor manufacturing or externally by coming in contact with metal in someone's pocket, like coins, keys or jewelry.

"That's what makes it so important for these retailers and manufacturers to warn the consumer," he said.

Third-degree burns

Becker, 46, is an automotive engineer. He had purchased an e-cigarette with an LG battery in it and bought a second battery as a backup.

On April 1, 2016, he slipped the spare battery into his pocket and headed to a meeting in Windsor.

"I was in a meeting at work and it starting sizzling," Becker said. The battery eventually burned through his pocket and fell spinning on the floor and filling the conference room with black smoke, Becker said.

He ended up with a softball-sized burn on his right hip that took skin grafts to fix.

"There's a divot there where they had to go in and cut the muscle out to get all of the burn out," Becker said. "I still have to put ointment on it three times a day and it's been a year."

 

These are the jeans Scott Becker of Washington Township was wearing when a lithium ion battery exploded in his pocket. (Photo: Courtesy of Scott Becker)

His medical bills are more than $150,000.

Mueller said he tried suing the store that sold the device and the batteries, but found they had no insurance so he's preparing a suit against LG.

Vaping history

E-cigarettes or vaping pens were first patented in 2003 and became available in the U.S. in 2007, according to a 2014 report by the U.S. Fire Administration. Users pour oils, which typically include nicotine, into the tank of the pen.

With the press of button, a built-in battery-powered heating element quickly heats the oils to about 400 degrees. At that temperature, the oils don't combust, but they do form a vapor which can then be inhaled.

While nicotine-laced chewing gum and skin patches had been around for years, e-cigarettes offered advantages for smokers looking to quit. They mimic the smoking experience and deliver the nicotine without creating the carcinogens associated with cigarette smoke.

With about 44 million smokers in America, an estimated 9 million to 10 million people have used a vaping pen in the past 30 days, Conley said.

"You have a product that has literally helped 2.5 million Americans quit the deadliest habit on the planet," Conley said.

Battery issues

But generating all that heat instantly requires a ready energy source and traditional disposable batteries run down quickly in the devices. Most vape pens come with rechargeable lithium-ion batteries and vape shops sell spares for when those run down.

Lithium ion batteries are so good at storing energy that they are used in cameras, power tools, even electric cars. The batteries carry about 20% of the power of TNT weighing the same amount, said Daniel Doughty, a chemist who worked for the U.S. Department of Energy for 20 years and now runs Battery Safety Consulting in Albuquerque, N.M.

"If they are made in a quality manufacturing facility, that stored energy is released in the manner you want, when you want it," he said. "If it goes off unintended or in an uncontrolled manner, that energy is significant."

He noted that the batteries include aluminum foil on the positive electrode.

"It gets hot enough to melt aluminum, which melts at about 1,220 degrees (Fahrenheit)," he said.

He has examined many failed batteries to diagnose the problems.

"The worst failure for a cell is what's called an internal short circuit," Doughty said. "If there is a little foreign metal particle in there, that could work. It creates that shorting point. The higher level the charge, the more severe the accident."

Doughty said reputable battery makers prevent adulterated materials from getting into their products by manufacturing them in elaborate "clean rooms." But with an estimated 5 billion such batteries being sold annually, low-cost knock-offs are common from companies that aren't as careful.

"There are a lot cheap cells that are coming out of China," Doughty said. "That raises the question of, are they really watching their manufacturing?"

Some battery makers now warn retailers not to sell the batteries for use in e-cigarettes because they are intended for larger products like cameras and tools, which have more protective housing around the battery.

Conley of the Vaping Association said some vape shops around the country now require battery buyers to read and sign a waiver indicating they understand the risks and how to properly use the products to minimize risk.

But Mueller said vape shops don't warn buyers to the dangers or offer advice on safe use of the batteries.

'Like a hot dog'

Sean Ritz, 35, of Canton said he received no warning when he bought his e-cigarette and batteries to use in it and he's now suing Wild Bill's Tobacco, a vape shop in Westland, where he bought them.

He was at home on Oct.22 when a battery exploded. He'd spent the day moving into a new house with his pregnant wife and was in the basement moving boxes when the battery exploded.

"I heard a fizzing noise. It was absolutely terrifying. It was loud, smoke was shooting out," Ritz said.

 

Sean Ritz, 35, of Canton suffered third-degree burns on his left leg when the battery to an electronic cigarette exploded in his pocket Oct. 22, 2016. (Photo: Courtesy of Sean Ritz)

His wife looked on in horror as he tried to wrestle his jeans off. He ended up with third-degree burns all the way down his leg.

"It looked like a hot dog you leave on the grill too long; completely black and cracked in a few places," Ritz said. "I peeled a piece of it off, and realized it was part of my skin."

Ritz ultimately spent 12 days at the burn center at the University of Michigan, including four days in intensive care.

"These things are dangerous," he said. "If I'd known this stuff, I could have saved myself a tremendous amount of anguish."

Contact John Wisely: 313-222-6825 or jwisely@freepress.com. On Twitter @jwisely.

 

 

 

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