It is difficult to fathom how ordinary devices, such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone or a toy like the hoverboard, can be ticking time bombs in our hands, our houses or even under our child’s feet. Yet recent, high-profile incidents of spontaneously combusting devices have made us give these devices more than a passing glance. The culprit that has sparked these devices and the corresponding national conversation is the lithium-ion battery that powers them.
While riding an attraction at the Universal Orlando amusement park, a 14-year-old girl suffered burns to several areas of her body when another passenger’s e-cigarette exploded. After a passenger’s replacement Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone burst into flames inside the plane’s cabin, a Southwest Flight was evacuated while on the runway. When an 8-year-old plugged in her brand-new hoverboard to charge for the first time, it exploded and caught the girl’s bedroom on fire.
Hand-held video cameras were among the first devices powered by lithium-ion batteries, which were introduced to the market in the early 1990s. Now, they are used to power just about everything. They are extremely popular because they charge faster, last longer, and have a higher power density for more battery life than traditional battery technology. Moving lithium particles between a negative and positive electrode to charge and discharge, the batteries create energy and a certain amount of heat.
Lithium-ion batteries catch fire or explode due to a faulty manufacturing process. There are at least two common situations that can quickly turn an ordinary electronic device into a dangerous object. First, thermal runaway occurs when a lithium-ion battery is defective and when the heat generated by the charging and discharging ignites the electrolytes – commonly known as overheating. This will cause a fire or explosion.
The other common situation that can cause a lithium-ion battery to catch fire or explode occurs when the battery is susceptible to puncture or tear. The battery is susceptible if its outside shell or the barrier separating the electrodes is defective. Even a slight breach can allow the positive and negative electrodes to touch and create a short circuit. The instant electrical discharge from the short circuit can be explosive.
Although businesses and researchers continue exploring new battery technologies, these lithium-ion batteries remain the standard. If you would like more information about lithium-ion batteries, you can contact Will Sutton, a lawyer in our Toxic Torts Section. He can be reached at 800-898-2034 or by email at William.Sutton@beasleyallen.com.
Sources: Righting Injustice; Orlando Sentinel; CNN; CBS News; New York Times; The (Lebanon) Daily News; U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission; Associated Press; and Samsung
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