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And now.... a mobile phone with a built-in fire extinguisher


via Flickr © ukCWCS (CC BY 2.0)

  • US scientists make lithium-ion battery that can smother itself
  • Foaming pants will be the sign of an over-heating smartphone
  • Dousing done in the blink of an eye -literally
  • Samsung to admit that batteries caused Galaxy Note 7 conflagrations - and cost the company US$17 billion

 A team of scientists at Sanford University in Silicon Valley have come up with a prototype lithium-ion battery for use in mobile devices that actually contains an fire-extinguisher which self-activates if the battery gets too hot. The extinguisher goes off should the temperature in the battery rise above 150C (for our friends in the US that's 302 degrees Fahrenheit which is 90F above the boiling point of water of so you'll probably already be

aware that your pants are  a tad warmer than usual before the smouldering starts and the pockets suddenly fill with foul-smelling chemical foam that then oozes out between the fly buttons). The extinguishing process is very fast indeed - in tests fires in lithium-ion batteries have been put out in just 0.4 of a second.

Lithium-ion technology is used in many batteries, not only in mobile phones and other communications devices but also in critical avionics components. They are light and retain a charge longer than other battery types, however, they are a well-known and well-documented fire hazard. One of the principal potential faults is that they can burst into flames more or less instantaneously if the the mains charging process is too rapid for the battery to bear. In other cases, microscopic manufacturing faults incorporated into the batteries as they were being made have been proven to have caused spontaneous combustion and explosions.

The Stanford research team says at the heart of the new flame-retardant battery technology is a “smart non-woven electrospun separator" contained in a polymer plastic casing which physically separates the extinguisher from the the electrolyte material and other components of the battery. Should the battery overheat the polymer shell melts and releases triphenyl phosphate (TPP) which puts out the fire, quite literally within the blink of an eye.

The scientists say the new "smart and adaptive" material solution will not affect battery performance, power or length of charge. Neither will it increase battery weight "in any appreciable way".

Planes and Trains and Automobiles - and mobile phones

There's no doubt that something needs to be done about the dangers of overheating and exploding lithium-ion batteries. They have been found to be the root cause of some potentially devastating fires on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft. In one incident, in January 2013, within seconds of the last of the 183 passengers onboard a Japan Airlines flight disembarking at Logan Airport in Boston in the US, smoke started to billow up into the rear cabin of the new aircraft. The source of the blaze was the batteries in the plane's auxiliary battery unit and when ordinary fire extinguishers were applied they had no effect on fire at all.

Firefighters applied 'Halotron', a specialist fire suppressant and although that did extinguish the fire, it reignited as soon as use of Halotron was discontinued. It was later determined that the cause of the fire was over-heating in a lithium-ion battery manufactured by the GS Yuasa Corporation of Japan. This resulted in 'thermal runaway' where heat from a failing battery cell causes surrounding cells to overheat, fail and burst into flames.

The result of this fire, and other similar incidents on other aircraft, was that the US Federal Aviation Authority grounded the entire 787 fleet.

Elsewhere, over-heating and other fire-related incidents have been reported by the owners of Tesla electric cars and other such high-tech battery-powered vehicles from other manufacturers

And then, of course, there are smartphones. As mobile device screens get bigger and users demand and routinely expect to own ever more sophisticated handsets with improved graphics and video capabilities powered by ever more powerful batteries that hold a charge for longer, manufacturers are desperately trying to increase battery capacity without making them heavier and more bulky - and the smaller the battery cell the greater is the tendency for it to heat-up. It's a risky trade-off and when a modern battery suddenly fails the result is usually a fire and/or an explosion.

The most notorious case in point here is the globally infamous Samsung Galaxy Note 7. These devices have an undisputed tendency to catch fire and airlines now require passengers who still actually have the things to completely disable the devices before take-off and keep them off for the entire duration of a flight.

After the recent and very well-publicised spate of exploding handsets, Samsung is taking its own sweet time to confirm that it was batteries caused them. All the company has said so far is "We understand the need for answers and appreciate your continued patience as well as that of our valued customers, partners and stakeholders. We are working diligently to ensure that we have a comprehensive update and will provide more information in the coming weeks once we have the final report."

However, whilst Samsung has shilly-shallied, other engineering companies have laid the blame fairly and squarely on the Korean company's use of "over-ambitious battery design."

Samsung to admit "it was the batteries wot done it"

Whilst this article was being written this morning, Samsung announced that the Galaxy Note 7's fires and explosions were indeed caused by battery issues and not any other hardware or software problems The company will release its findings in full next Monday, January 23.

According to Reuters, the head of Samsung's mobile business Koh Dong-jin will also announce what the company is doing to prevent any such disasters happening again in any further and other models of handsets.

The Galaxy Note 7 fiasco cost Samsung dear, in more ways that one. It was forced to recall  2.5 million handsets, suffered a massive global PR disaster and a media roasting (if you'll forgive the pun) of such ferocity that, in the end, it had to abandon production of the device altogether. Samsung's Q3, 2016 profits fell by 33 per cent as a direct result. In total to date the farrago has cost Samsung in excess of US$17 billion. And all this because the company tried to ape Apple and, in fitting the S7 with a non-removable battery squeezed too large a power source into a body too-thin to cope with it.

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