Ode to the Short-Lived, Bright-Burning Samsung Galaxy Note 7

Justin Holloway mourns the missed opportunity to have your own personal, portable haystack.

Whilst relocating to Old Blighty from Down Under, I was warned by Sharon, the air hostess, ‘oi mate, you better not be carrying a Galaxy with ya’. Fortunately, I was equipped with an iPhone and could use the 24+ hour flight to catch up on podcasts. Since then further aircraft carriers in Australia, Asia, Europe and America have banned the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 from being carried on or packed in luggage. Samsung has also taken the phone off the shelves and has issued a recall for 2.5 million smartphones in what is believed to be one of the costliest product safety failures in tech history.

So what was all the commotion about? Why was this particular phone so dangerous?

A couple of months ago the Galaxy Note 7 was released. It was billed as one of the best phones of 2016, however soon dangerous problems started to arise when, like a haystack, the phone would spontaneously combust. According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, in these first few months ‘Samsung received 96 reports of batteries overheating including 13 reports of burns and 47 reports of property damage associated with Note 7 phones.’

Initially Samsung announced a broad recall. This involved issuing customers with new replacement Note 7 phones with particular insignia to suggest they were safe.

One of the most costly product safety failures in tech history.

However even replacement Galaxy Note 7 phones exhibited the same problem. Michael Klering, from Kentucky in the US told WKYT, a local news station, that he awoke early morning and realised his new phone had spontaneously combusted, filling his entire room with smoke. He was admitted to hospital for smoke induced acute bronchitis. He said “My phone was supposed to be the replacement, so you would have thought it would be safe. It wasn’t plugged in. It wasn’t anything, it was just sitting there.” Eventually the company stopped production and issued the following statement:

“We are working with relevant regulatory bodies to investigate the recently reported cases involving the Galaxy Note 7. Because consumers’ safety remains our top priority, Samsung will ask all carrier and retail partners globally to stop sales and exchanges of the Galaxy Note 7 while the investigation is taking place. We remain committed to working diligently with appropriate regulatory authorities to take all necessary steps to resolve the situation. Consumers with either an original Galaxy Note 7 or replacement Galaxy Note 7 device should power down and stop using the device and take advantage of the remedies available.”

Some sources, including the NY Times, have suggested that Samsung does not fully understand what is causing the phones to catch alight and that production of the Note 7 was rushed. Furthermore, the phone was not fully tested by their engineers prior to release.

Samsung did not include in their dossier of features that the phone, like a personal and portable haystack, would undergo spontaneous combustion.

So why are they overheating? The Samsung Note 7 uses a lithium ion battery for power, which is a type of rechargeable battery in which lithium ions move from the negative electrode (anode) to the positive electrode (cathode) during discharge and the reverse when charging. The electrodes are divided by a porous separator, containing a liquid electrolyte, which allows ionic movement but prevents contact between the two electrodes. If the electrodes were to come into contact, a short circuit would occur. As the lithium ion battery uses a highly flammable electrolyte, this causes ignition and heating. At 100°C the materials begin to break down causing further heating until the battery ultimately catches fire. Some reported scenarios which could cause the electrodes to come in contact include:

  • Manufacturing defects
  • Damage
  • Scrap metal left in the battery during manufacturing.
  • Lithium plate concentration in recharging causing shorting and combustion.

Perhaps we are coming to the limits of the lithium battery systems. There are many others with good characteristics which do not use a highly flammable electrolyte. Nickel metal hydride battery systems, for example, are selected in vehicular applications because they are safer and more tolerant of damage.

The marketing team at Samsung did not include in their dossier of features that the phone, like a personal and portable haystack, would undergo spontaneous combustion. Let’s hope it’s the last device that has this capability.

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