How Samsung’s Note 7 mess may be good for us all

High-tech lithium-ion batteries, powering most of our gadgets, can be dangerous things. Has Samsung's Note 7 problem shown the industry how to make things safer?

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Samsung took two major strikes when it introduced (and then recalled and reintroduced) its Note 7 device after it was found to have batteries that could overheat and cause fires.

While there were relatively few incidents (perhaps a few hundred out of millions of devices shipped) it nevertheless was a serious safety issue, as even one incident could have caused a real disaster. It even got the Note 7 officially banned from all U.S. airlines/flights. An overreaction perhaps, but it did elevate the perception in consumers’ minds that rechargeable devices can be dangerous.

No doubt the Samsung battery disaster has been bad for the company, and has caused them significant monetary losses. It caused an otherwise potentially category-leading product to be taken off the market.

But it also exposed a much bigger problem with modern battery technology and companies pushing the edge in battery chemistry and fast-charging systems. Indeed, many others have had battery problems, even if they have been less visible to the public.

Recently a story of an e-cig blowing up in a user’s mouth was attributed almost certainly to a bad battery. And there have been numerous examples of hover boards catching fire and often causing peripheral damage, including burning down buildings. Other devices, from laptops to iPhones have had battery overheating problems, causing injury or property damage. Lithium-ion batteries in airline cargo and checked bags have been banned for years due to a lost aircraft attributed to battery explosions. And there are many more examples of battery induced incidents.

This really is an industry wide problem that exists due to the inherent dangers of chemical reactions in high-tech batteries that sometimes are not operating safely due to design flaws, excessive charging, excessive battery drains, or simply manufacturing defects. Safer battery designs are being researched, but they are still years away.

Back to Samsung and its problem. As only a company of Samsung’s size and scale could, it decided to fully investigate the battery failures (and of course to also prevent negative perceptions of its quality from ever happening again). Samsung did extensive research into the failure mechanisms in hardware and software within the Note 7 devices, and also examined the various weak points of battery design and manufacturing. Samsung, in cooperation with internationally recognized testing organizations (i.e., UL, TUV Rhineland), tested 200K devices and 30K batteries from two different manufacturers to get at the root cause of the problem. In both battery models they found design flaws with the internal battery layer insulation that separated the positive and negative electrodes, and in some cases found manufacturing defects from welding the cases shut that caused internal shorts in the battery.

This level of rigorous testing led Samsung to create an 8-point battery test for all of their future products. While there may always be some potential faults in any product, this process once fully implemented should go a long way to alleviating future battery problems. Indeed, this is probably a far more exhaustive test than most lithium-ion batteries used in many products undergo. Samsung plans to openly share the test findings and its new battery quality process with the rest of the industry.

Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries and their charging systems have been problematic on many products. But the industry has done relatively little to address these issues. It took a product’s consumer-level disaster to finally have someone take a long hard look at the core battery chemistry, manufacturing process, charging functions and environmental conditions to discover important failure mechanisms that often go ignored.

As a result, Samsung has put in place probably the most extensive battery/system test and QA process ever undertaken by a phone company -- it is certainly more exhaustive than most other consumer devices using rechargeable batteries. And if the rest of the industry adopts the recommendations and learns from this, we’ll all be safer when using our battery powered high-tech devices.

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