Popular for their high energy storage capacity, lithium-ion batteries can be found in all manner of devices from smartphones to hover-boards.
But Samsung’s call to halt the production of Galaxy Note 7 phones over fire hazards illustrates the drawbacks of the battery common in home electronics. While lithium ion battery fires are rare, retailers and consumers have paid more attention to the safety concerns surrounding them.
Here’s what you need to know about lithium ion batteries.
1. Smartphones, Hover-Boards and Airplanes Have Burned When They Fail to Work
Since Japan introduced Li-ion cells 25 years ago, they have become widely used for their ability to store energy efficiently. Found in smartphones, electric cars and hover-boards, these batteries are here to stay until researchers develop a safer, cost-efficient version.
However, lithium-ion batteries are giving some manufacturers a big headache, most notably smartphone maker Samsung. After recalling 2.5 million Galaxy Note 7 phones, the South Korean-based company learned that replacement phones were catching fire too. The news forced the smartphone maker to halt sales of the replacement phones.
Cases of lithium-ion battery fires have been isolated, but well publicized. Wal-Mart and Amazon removed hover-boards from their shelves this spring after viral videos surfaced of the burning scooters. Tesla’s Model S also caught on fire in 2013 after road debris damaged its batteries. In response, companies have taken precautions to mitigate fire risks. For example, many airlines don’t allow hover-boards on the plane. The government has also banned e-cig batteries in checked luggage.
2. Douse a Lithium-Ion Battery Fire With Water or a Foam Extinguisher
You’re more likely to be injured by a drunk driver than by a lithium-ion battery, reports CBS. Still, in the case that your iPhone or laptop does combust, you should have water handy or better yet, a foam extinguisher, according to Battery University.
At the first sign of your device overheating, clear the surrounding area of things that can catch on fire. If possible, remove the battery and leave it in an open space outside to burn out. You can use water to douse a small lithium-ion fire. There is too little lithium metal to react with water.
3. MIT Scientist is Trying to come Up with a Safer Battery That Runs on Oxygen
In their quest for a more efficient lithium-ion battery, scientists are developing a battery that uses air to power devices. While the idea dates back to the 1970s, researchers have failed to find a way to draw oxygen from the air without damaging the battery.
However, a battery that uses oxygen could be one step closer to reality. A prototype has been developed that stores twice as much charge as Elon Musk’s lithium-ion cells in his Gigafactory, a lithium-ion battery factory. Dr. Ju Li of Massachusetts Institute of Technology described his prototype version of a lithium ion battery in Nature Energy. He says the battery is safer than lithium-air batteries.
Instead of drawing air from the atmosphere, the battery traps oxygen inside itself. The oxygen is embedded in a matrix that prevents it from disintegrating, reports the Economist.
4. Lithium-Ion Battery Fires Can Come from Mishandling the Device
A lithium ion battery contains many cells that pass electricity back and forth to charge and discharge your device. When the battery is charging, electrons will pass from the cell’s positive to its negative terminal. When energy is removed from the battery cells, the electrons will travel in the reverse route. Normally everything works without a hitch. There are special cases, however, when the device overheats:
1) The Device is Damaged
Putting enough pressure on a lithium ion powered device may cause it to short circuit and overheat. There have been cases of phones overheating when crushed by reclining chairs during a flight. The owner of the Note 7 that burned on a Southwest Airlines flight dropped the phone before smoke came from it prompting an evacuation.
2) The Device is Not Manufactured Properly
Manufacturers usually include a control mechanism to set safe voltage levels or the input current. If these controls are absent, the device will overheat. For example, a faulty “battery management system” may fail to stop an electrical current even when the battery is fully charged, reports the Telegraph. That’s probably why Samsung issued a software update capping battery charge at 60 percent in its Note 7 phone. The battery in the Note 7 phone was also compressed so much that the terminal touched, according to Korea’s Agency for Technology and Standards.
5. It is OK to Recharge Lithium Ion Batteries Even When They Are Dead
Lithium ion batteries can be expensive to replace. If they fail, it is still possible to recharge them through what is known as a full recharge. First, power down you battery to zero percent. Turn it on multiple times until it cannot boot up. Once the battery is completely drained charge it for 48 hours.
You can also jumpstart your device battery in the same way you would jumpstart a car. Make sure you know about how to properly handle electrical wires before starting. You will want to take a USB cord and cut off the small end, known as the b-connector. Plug the other end into a computer and match up the positive (red) and negative (black) cords on the b-connector end to the corresponding feeds on your battery.