If Samsung had a dollar for every Galaxy Note 7 smartphone that caught fire, it wouldn’t have nearly enough money to fill the $3 billion hole the company finds itself in. Late last night, the Korean manufacturer announced it had officially stopped all production of the phones. This after it recalled millions of the phones last month upon discovering the lithium ion battery inside them might combust without warning. But then the replacement phones caught fire, too. Now the company is telling everyone with a Galaxy Note 7 to shut it off and return it. Where, because recycling these phones is so hard, it’ll likely end up on the scrap heap of history.
If Samsung could tell people to remove the battery, it probably would. But it can’t. Because of course it glued the battery down.
This problem is not limited to Samsung. Although the exploda-Note clearly caught Samsung off-guard, battery fires are not uncommon. The rechargeable lithium-ion batteries in everything from smartphones to electric vehicles are volatile. Given enough physical or thermal stress, any lithium ion battery can overheat and combust. And yet manufacturers insist upon making them difficult or impossible to remove. They’re glued into the phone on your bedside table, the tablet you hand your kid, the laptop in your backpack.
Our engineers at iFixit tore down the Note7 shortly after its release in August. Digging a battery out of the Note7 is like brain surgery–except the patient can burst into flames. The phone is glued shut, with no external screws. Opening it required blasting the back of the phone with hot air, prying away the glass and pulling out a layer of components before going after the battery with a tiny plastic crowbar. We pray for protection from a cross-section of deities when doing this, and keep a bucket of sand and fire extinguisher handy.
When Note7s started exploding en masse, reporters asked if I am surprised. No, I am not.
Why Batteries Explode
You’ll find rechargeable lithium-ion batteries powering more and more gadgets, including things you wouldn’t expect, like e-cigarettes–which also occasionally explode. Lithium is light, and it stores a lot of energy, which is great, because no one wants to lug around an 8-pound phone.
But it’s also volatile. Li-ion batteries use two electrodes as the positive and negative poles. Charging draws lithium ions from one pole to the other. The energy that is built up is released during use as the ions flow in the opposite direction. If the electrodes ever touch, this energy is quickly and disastrously released as heat. That’s why batteries feature built-in separators to keep these electrodes, well, separated.
But a production error in the Note 7 “placed pressure on plates contained within battery cells. That in turn brought negative and positive poles into contact, triggering excessive heat,” according to a Samsung report obtained by Bloomberg. Result: a big boom.
You’ll see more big booms. Manufacturers have reached 90 percent of the theoretical maximum yield of li-ion batteries, and keep pushing what’s possible without making sacrifices. Consumers want bigger screens, faster processors, more powerful gadgets. But they refuse to accept shorter battery life or slower charging.
The industry’s obsession with slimmer gadgets requires slimmer batteries. So they increasingly turn toward lithium polymer batteries. Such batteries are incredibly delicate, and encased in a flexible foil-like case. This reduces bulk, making the batteries easy to package. But it means essentially wrapping a potentially incendiary device in tinfoil.
And then pasting it into a device people hold near their face.
This Harms Recyclers-And the Planet
Samsung was better equipped to face this kind of thing two years ago. The Note 4 featured a user-replaceable battery. So did Samsung’s other devices. If anything went wrong, Samsung could simply instruct people to remove the battery and exchange it. (And consumers who felt their phones getting unusually warm could have simply ejected the battery, rather than watch their phone go up like a Roman candle.)
Back then, Samsung remained a vocal proponent of replaceable batteries. It was a selling point. One ad poked fun at iPhone users huddled around wall outlets in an airport as a Galaxy S5 user simply swapped a dead battery for a fresh one. But the company changed course the following year, sealing its phones in a bid to be more like Apple. Samsung has been gluing in batteries ever since. And now it’s blowing up on them.
This is not unusual. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission has recalled more than 40 products for battery fires since 2002. (That whole hoverboard scare started with combusting batteries.) But exploding batteries aren’t just bad for consumers. They’re bad for the environment. Recycling them is difficult, expensive, and dangerous.
Lithium ion batteries must be removed by hand. Glue makes this infinitely harder. Each device contains just a few dollars worth of recyclable material, so any time spent pulling them apart leads to lower profits. Integrated batteries are dangerous, too. Puncture a battery while removing it and it might catch fire. Inadvertently feed a battery into a shredder and it can burn the place down. One bad battery can spark a huge fire. There’s a reason shipping them by air is a hassle.
The CEO of a large recycling company recently told me dismantlers deal with battery fires about once a week. Just last year, a facility in Pennsylvania burned for two days. It was the facilities third major fire in four years. This isn’t a problem with irresponsible recyclers. It is a problem with irresponsible manufacturers. Chasing slimmer phones and higher profits, manufacturers keep gluing tiny incendiary devices into their devices.
Fortunately, some manufacturers continue designing responsible products. The HP Elite X2 tablet features an easily removable battery. So does LG’s flagship G5 phone. It’s time for the rest of the industry to make its products safer for consumers, safer for recyclers, and safer for the environment.
Perhaps Samsung could lead the pack when it comes out with a Note 7 replacement. It has to recall and completely redesign these phones anyway.