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    Spontaneous combustion hints at limits of Li-ion tech

     

    Forget snakes in planes, and creepy clowns; the spontaneous combustion problem with Samsung’s Note 7 mobile phone has spooked an entire industry.

    After replacement phones ignited, engineers still can’t say for sure if the smoke bomb effect is the result of a battery flaw or due to a circuit design bug, possibly in the phone’s processor. As a result, Samsung has ditched its popular Note 7 and recalled all units.

    But as engineers and designers look for the fuse that’s igniting Note 7’s lithium-ion batteries, the report below reminds us that problems with lithium-ion power cells have been with us for a long time. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, for instance, has issued numerous recalls for battery packs, snow blowers, hoverboards, flashlights and power recliners in the past year, all due to lithium-ion battery problems.

    According to one expert, the problem is exacerbated by the growing demands of mobile phone users which are pushing phone makes to adopt bigger screens and more powerful devices that require packing more energy into smaller spaces.

    It’s a crisis that’s prompted one expert to suggest that what we see from the standpoint of lithium-ion technology is that these ubiquitous power cells are beginning to reach the safe energy density limits of that technology.

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    Samsung’s woes highlight explosive limits of lithium batteries | Reuters

    Technology
    Wed Oct 12, 2016 | 10:38 PM EDT

    Samsung’s woes highlight explosive limits of lithium batteries
    By Jeremy Wagstaff | SINGAPORE

    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.

    “We are reviewing every step of our engineering, manufacturing and quality control processes,” Samsung said in an emailed response to Reuters.

    An official at the Korean Agency for Technology and Standards, which is also investigating, said the fault in the replacement devices might not be the same as the problem in the original product.

    Both Samsung SDI and Amperex Technology Ltd (ATL), which supply batteries to Samsung Electronics, declined to comment.

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