How New Tech Could Make Batteries Safer

Keeping the sparks from flying

Key Takeaways

  • A Samsung smartphone recently caught fire on a plane in a reminder that batteries aren’t always safe.
  • Experts say the danger from gadget batteries is growing.
  • One solution to battery safety is the use of safer chemistries.
smartphone and charger on fire

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Cell phone batteries keep catching fire, but researchers are working to find a solution. 

A Samsung Galaxy A21 smartphone was the latest to make the news for bursting into flames and forcing a plane to land. No one was seriously injured in the accident at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, but experts say the danger from gadget batteries is growing. 

"Lithium-Ion Batteries are becoming ubiquitous in everyday life in a range of applications at different scales, all the way from small electronic devices through electric vehicles, all the way up to large grid-scale storage installations," Gavin Harper, a battery researcher at the University of Birmingham, told Lifewire in an email interview. "Any technology that stores an enormous amount of energy in a dense medium will have intrinsic safety challenges if that energy is released uncontrollably."

Batteries on a Plane

As the recent event in Seattle showed, despite decades of effort to enhance safety, batteries can still combust. 

Part of the problem is battery accidents are a numbers game. According to analysts at GSMA, 5.27 billion people in the world have a mobile device. Of that, about 97% of Americans own a mobile phone, according to the Pew Research Center. 

If a lithium-ion battery short circuits, which can happen when a car battery cell is punctured or exposed to heat, it can produce a fireball explosion that ignites to 1,300 degrees F in milliseconds. Such an occurrence is nearly impossible to survive, Jack Kavanaugh, CEO of battery technology company Nanotech Energy, explained to Lifewire in an email interview.

Everyone wants a device that can last all day on a charge.

Manufacturers within the electronics industry have long known about the potential risks of the flammable formulas in lithium-ion batteries, Kavanaugh claims. Still, he said, lithium-ion battery incidents in consumer gadgets go largely unreported. In February 2018, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission reported over 25,000 overheating and battery fire incidents involving more than 400 types of consumer products over five years. 

And from 2012 to 2017, it reported 49 recalls of high-energy-density batteries concerning more than 4 million devices, including mobile phones, scooters, power tools, and laptops.

Quenching the Flames

"Everyone wants a device that can last all day on a charge," Micah Peterson, a vice president at Battery Market, told Lifewire in an email interview.

He added that lithium-ion batteries have become the standard for all our devices because of their unmatched power density.

"No other battery technology comes close to offering the same amount of power in a small form factor, but this comes at a cost," Peterson said. "Lithium-Ion batteries can be extremely explosive, and since they contain all the fuels and oxidizers needed to maintain a fire even in a vacuum, they can be very difficult to extinguish."

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Manufacturers have minimized explosions and fires with built-in circuitry that monitors battery health and temperature, Peterson said. This circuitry is called a Battery Management System, or BMS, and is in every device that contains a lithium battery.

"A BMS cannot save a battery from an explosion in all cases," Peterson said. "The well-publicized issue a few years ago with Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phones was an example of bad design tolerances and poor quality control causing fires even with the BMS doing its job."

One solution to battery safety is the use of safer chemistries, Peterson suggested. He added that lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries are an example of cheap chemistry to manufacture and much safer than lithium-ion NMC chemistries. 

Any technology that stores an enormous amount of energy in a dense medium will have intrinsic safety challenges if that energy is released uncontrollably.

Researchers and scientists are working to improve existing lithium-ion batteries. For example, Nanotech Energy has developed a proprietary, non-flammable Graphene-Organolyte battery, which it claims is superior in safety and outperforms other leading lithium-ion batteries available on the market. 

Scientists at Deakin University in Australia are developing a lithium metal battery prototype that is flame resistant. 

"The technology has been under development since 2016, but the university received government funding to help develop it further, and recent results are promising," Kavanaugh said. "Even still, it appears the broad commercialization of lithium metal batteries is years away."

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