lithium-ion batteries over-heating, li-ion batteries catching fire

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Last week, the biggest news in the world of Android smartphones was Samsung’s decision to recall millions of Samsung Galaxy Note 7 which were overheating and bursting into flames in several cases. The news stunned several people around the world because such serious mishaps was never expected to be associated with Samsung smartphones.

lithium-ion batteries over-heating, li-ion batteries catching fire
Lithium-ion Batteries

However, when it comes to Li-ion batteries, which are the best batteries used in smartphones and other gadgets, overheating and bursting into flames is a common occurrence if history is anything to go by.

It is a testament to how careful makers of the batteries are that we don’t even hear about these fires more regularly. What causes the fires in the first place?

First of, let’s take a look at how these batteries work and what makes them tick.

Lithium-ion batteries have been around since the last decade of the last century when they started appearing in portable video cameras. They were better than other kinds of batteries because they can store a huge amount of energy without taking up too much space.

lithium-ion batteries over-heating, li-ion batteries catching fire
Schematic of how li-ion batteries work

Inside the batteries, energy is produced when lithium particles move between positively and negatively charged electrodes. The particles are encased in cells of high pressure tightly packed with chemical substances that are both volatile and flammable.

It is the movement of the particles during charging and discharging that causes the rise in temperature of the batteries. So if the batteries are badly made, installed badly or designed with inferior materials, the heat can set the chemicals aflame causing fires.

Another factor that can cause flames in batteries is if the thin membranes separating the various parts of the battery are breached or damaged. Short-circuiting then occurs and the immediate result is heat build-up.

So when all these facts are taken together, why do manufacturers insist on using li-ion batteries? The simple reason is that they are the best at the moment.

Another critical factor for the fires can be traced to the relationship between manufactures and consumers of battery-powered devices. Like was mentioned earlier, Lithium-ion batteries can store large amount of energy without taking too much space. But at the same time, there is a huge demand for more energy to power bigger, more sophisticated gadgets for a longer period of time. The intense competition among manufacturers to satisfy the energy demands of users lead to cramping more and more energy into small batteries.

lithium-ion batteries over-heating, li-ion batteries catching fire
Burnt Samsung Galaxy Note 7

The results are then predictable. Overheating occurs and in some unfortunate cases, these leads to fire outbreaks.

There is no way out of these conundrum for manufacturers except to make sure quality control of battery manufacture is kept at a high standard by the use of superior materials.

Another variable in preventing batteries fires is to make sure low capacity batteries are not used in gadgets whose power demands far exceed the capabilities of the batteries.

However, even if all these measures are put in place, mistakes are bound to happen somewhere along the chain.

So from time to time we would keep hearing of incidences like the Galaxy Note 7 case. Or the one that happened about two months ago involving some hoverboards.

The US Consumer Product Safety Commission had to recall 500,000  hoverboards bought  in the two months prior to the date of the announcement.

lithium-ion batteries over-heating, li-ion batteries catching fire
A burnt hoverboard

The batteries in the hoverboards had a disturbing tendency to burst into flames when in motion. The recall affected 10 different manufacturers of hoverboards in the country.

Two years ago, Tesla motors were in the news because the Lithium-ion batteries in their cars caught fires after the casing were destroyed by bad terrains. Tesla response was to add additional layers to the outer casings of the battery packs to make it harder to be breached. So far, since then, Tesla has being in the news for other reasons apart from fires. Apparently their solution worked very well.

For the foreseeable future, the world’s demand for li-ion batteries for different gadgets would continue to rise. And the need to make more profits could see some manufacturers of these batteries cutting corners by using inferior materials and technology; and the consequences for some unfortunate people are predictable.


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