Lithium-based batteries have been powering our portable devices for 25 years. But consumer demand for smaller, longer lasting devices is forcing manufacturers to push the technology, battery experts say, testing the limits of how much energy they can safely pack into smaller spaces.
“A battery is really a bomb that releases its energy in a controlled way,” says Qichao Hu, a former researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founder of SolidEnergy Systems, a battery startup.
“There are fundamental safety issues to all batteries, and as you get to higher energy density and faster charge, the barrier to explosion is less and less.” On Tuesday, Samsung Electronics scrapped its flagship Note 7 smartphone and told customers return their devices after weeks of bruising reports of phones igniting and images of scorched handsets.
In early September, the world’s largest smartphone maker blamed “a very rare manufacturing process error” for the problems. It has said it is still investigating reports of fires in a second, supposedly safe, batch of phones.
Exactly what caused the problems will be the subject of detailed studies by regulators, the company and its suppliers. Experts are baffled by what could be causing the overheating in the replacement phones, if not the batteries. Samsung says it would be “premature to speculate” on the outcome of its investigations.
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