* Samsung scraps Note 7 smartphone after fires linked to
* Smaller, long-lasting batteries test limits of technology
* History of lithium battery problems in wide range of
By Jeremy Wagstaff
SINGAPORE, Oct 13 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
"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
Both Samsung SDI and Amperex Technology Ltd
(ATL), which supply batteries to Samsung Electronics, declined
Samsung's Note 7 crisis may be its biggest, but the
problems with lithium-ion are not new.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued
recalls for battery packs, snow blowers, hoverboards,
flashlights and power recliners in the past year, all because of
fires caused by lithium-ion batteries.
In 2013, Boeing was forced to ground its entire fleet
of advanced 787 jetliners after some lithium-ion batteries
caught fire. The fleet was allowed to resume flights after
changes were made to the battery and charger, and to better
contain battery fires.
"We remain confident in the comprehensive improvements made
to the 787 battery system following this event, and in the
overall performance of the battery system and the safety of the
airplane," Boeing said in 2014 after an investigation into one
LIGHT-WEIGHT, HIGH ENERGY
Lithium is the lightest of all metals, and can pack a lot of
energy into a small volume - making it perfect for batteries.
The market has grown from a few hundred million cells in
2000 to 8 billion last year, according to Albemarle, a U.S.
But for the same reason, lithium-ion batteries need safety
mechanisms built in, adding to production costs.
And with prices falling 14 percent per year for the past 15
years, according to Albemarle, smaller scale players have
scrimped on safety, says Lewis Larsen, CEO of Lattice Energy, a
There is no evidence Samsung or its battery suppliers cut
corners with the Note 7, and Tony Olson, CEO of consultancy D2
Worldwide, said the problem was not limited to cheaper products.
He ran tests on batteries in laptops a decade ago,
highlighting the dangers of them catching fire. Some 9.6 million
Sony Corp laptop batteries were subsequently recalled.
But when Olsen repeated the tests on other laptop batteries
seven years later he found that "very little had changed in
battery safety design, despite being under tremendous scrutiny."
Sony, HP Inc, Toshiba Corp and Panasonic
Corp have all recalled laptop battery packs this year
over fire hazards, according to the Consumer Product Safety
Commission. Panasonic, which supplied the batteries, said the
problem was caused by manufacturing issues which it had now
Asked about Samsung's woes last week, Panasonic CEO Kazuhiro
Tsuga told reporters lithium ion batteries could become prone to
fires when density was raised and fast charging was applied.
"It's a trade-off between that (risk) and benefits. We place
the biggest priority on safety," Tsuga said. "With current
technologies, it's extremely difficult to make it zero chance of
Before the era of smartphones, users didn't require much of
their device - a few phone calls, a few SMS messages. The phone
of today, however, needs to do a lot more, and is in constant
According to eMarketer, an advertising consultancy, Chinese
mobile users, for example, spend nearly twice as long on their
smartphone as they did four years ago.
This in turn has pushed manufacturers into making their
screens bigger and their devices more powerful, packing more
energy into smaller spaces. And however sophisticated the
materials, "they're not 100 percent safe and they never will
be," said Larsen, the consultant.
"What we're seeing from the standpoint of lithium-ion
technology is they're beginning to reach the safe energy density
limits of that technology."
But experts are divided on that point. Brandon Ng, whose
Hong Kong startup QFE plans to sell refrigerator-sized batteries
to replace diesel generators, said there is still room for
"There is still a lot of developmental headroom with
lithium-ion batteries in terms of increasing the energy they can
Long-promised new technologies to make batteries safer are
around the corner.
Tim Grejtak, an analyst at Lux Research, said there are
dozens of startups working on the issue, but the scientific
problems were hard to solve and would take time.
Among the most promising candidates, according to Grejtak,
is California-based Blue Current, which is working on a high
density, low flammable battery using gel electrolytes.
Massachusetts-based SolidEnergy Systems is working on a
lithium metal battery which founder Hu says takes up half the
space of existing batteries. It will be used first in high
altitude drones, he says, and in consumer devices, including
smartphones, by 2018.
(Additional reporting by Se Young Lee in SEOUL, Makiko Yamazaki
in TOKYO and Sijia Jiang in HONG KONG; Editing by Lincoln Feast)