Why do smartphone batteries explode?

Smartphones are cool. Explosions are cool. But combining the two? Not so cool. Sadly, though, exploding smartphones are a real thing. The risk may be fairly low, but that’s little consolation to those who’ve lost the use of their trousers – or worse…

Among the many issues we deal with here at Team Knowhow, exploding phones are, thankfully, the rarest! Generally speaking, it takes an extremely serious manufacturing fault – or, more likely, series of faults – for such a catastrophic failure to occur.

But when it does happen, the results are dramatic – and often make headlines around the world. Most recently, Samsung suffered serious damage to their reputation in 2016 after a number of their flagship Galaxy Note 7 handsets spontaneously combusted, prompting a global recall.

Thankfully, nobody was injured in those incidents. But that’s not always the case:

Although stories like these are rare, it’s obvious why they capture the public imagination: none of us want to imagine that we’re carrying around a rectangle of highly volatile explosive in our pockets. But what actually causes smartphone explosions – and is there anything you can do to protect yourself?

The main offender: faulty hardware

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When a smartphone (or tablet, or any other high-tech kit) goes bang, it’s almost always down to one faulty component: the battery.

After all, that’s where your phone draws its energy from – and an explosion is, as Wikipedia handily reminds us, “a rapid increase in volume and release of energy in an extreme manner”!

Here’s the basic version: all batteries have both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ plates, which are usually kept separated by a non-conductive material. But if anything metallic happens to join the two plates – for example, if the battery is pierced by a metal object – then a short circuit is created.

Short circuits, by their nature, create an incredible amount of heat, light and other energy – and with the relatively large quantity of energy stored in the typical smartphone battery, this results in a serious explosion.

Now, modern smartphones use lithium-ion batteries which are, generally speaking, very safe. But if they’re overcharged without adequate protection, metallic lithium deposits can form between the plates, creating a short circuit – and that can be a recipe for a big bang, followed swiftly by calls to the fire brigade and your insurance provider.

Now, this is remarkably rare. These days, practically all lithium ion batteries have safety devices to prevent overcharging – but even with the best protection in the world, occasional manufacturing errors slip through the cracks.

What makes these errors particularly dangerous is that they don’t cause immediate failure. Generally, it isn’t until the battery gets warm that things get dangerous – and unfortunately for us, our phones tend to be at their warmest when we’re using them!

And it’s not always necessarily the battery itself that’s at fault. Anything that causes the battery to dramatically overheat can cause a catastrophic failure – including knock-off chargers and dubious third-party accessories.

If one of those overheats and conducts that heat to the battery, a big bang can often result – indeed, this is far more likely than a manufacturing fault in a genuine phone battery.

Keeping safe

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So, how do you protect yourself? In the case of dodgy third-party accessories, there’s one simple step you can take to protect yourself and your phone: avoid lesser-known and generic brands.

In particular, China has a massive issue with unregulated third-party chargers and accessories, causing serious safety issues – so much so that Apple’s China-based website includes a safety page detailing the risks.

It’s not such a problem here in Europe, and most third-party manufacturers are held to the same stringent regulations that Apple are – but in the age of the Internet, it’s not difficult for dodgy devices to slip through the cracks.

As such, you should avoid buying generic chargers, cables and the like from unregulated marketplaces – whether in your hometown or on Amazon – and always check for good reviews and trusted suppliers when buying.

That should keep you safe from dodgy accessories – but what about battery failure?

First, the bad news: there aren’t always any clear or obvious warning signs to let you know that your lithium ion battery is about to fail.

Sometimes, a battery will start to swell and bulge before it fails completely, as the internal cells rupture and break. If you see something like this, ditch the battery as soon as possible – and try to do it safely!

 
 
 
 
Bulging Nokia batteries

Two Nokia batteries – the one on the left is showing the notorious bulge

But the bulge doesn’t always happen. If not, you might notice that your device is a little warmer than usual – but let’s be honest, our phones get fairly warm during standard usage anyway.

Perhaps because these faults are so hard to detect, mainstream manufacturers tend to be extremely quick and thorough with recalls: in 2015, gaming hardware giant Nvidia recalled nearly 90,000 of their high-end Shield gaming tablets after four devices reportedly caught fire. Similarly, Apple recalled a “very small percentage” of iPhone 5 devices in 2014 after identifying issues with the battery.

But these are big manufacturers, with stringent quality control procedures and the means to broadcast recall notices far and wide. Third parties don’t have the same abilities– and so, when it comes to buying replacement batteries, it’s always best to go with a trusted big-name manufacturer.

Final thoughts

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The most important thing is not to worry too much: while dramatic, exploding smartphone incidents are incredibly rare – and by following a few sensible guidelines concerning third-party accessories, you can reduce the risk even further.

But it can never be entirely eliminated for as long as we’re using lithium-ion batteries. For that reason, it’s crucial to keep a close eye on all of your battery-powered devices for any suspicious bulging or dramatic overheating.

If you’re in any doubt at all, contact a tech support professional or your device manufacturer for further guidance – because with stakes so high, it’s not worth taking any risks.

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