Thu Oct 27 09:05:02 SAST 2016

Smartphones are (literally) the bomb

©The Daily Telegraph | 19 October, 2016 07:30
smartphone, file photo

Image by: iStock

Do you know that you carry around a miniature explosive device that, under the wrong circumstances, could be triggered, potentially resulting in a serious injury?

The device spends a not inconsiderable amount of time in our hands, or pressed right up against our face. It is the lithium-ion battery in the middle of our smartphones.

Samsung was given a fierce reminder of the explosive properties of lithium-ion batteries recently, when a series of nightmares, involving its latest handset overheating, bursting into flames and exploding, forced it to recall millions of handsets, cease production and write off billions in lost profits.

Among the explanations floating around are flimsy materials failing to separate reactive elements of the battery, the Galaxy Note 7's waterproof sealing preventing heat escaping from the phone, and simply that the phone's processor was pushed too hard.

Samsung is investigating, but what's certain is that any fault merely unleashed the fundamentally unstable properties of the battery itself.

The lithium-ion battery, which powers phones, is a veritable tinderbox.

When it produces the current that powers an electrical device, it is marshalling a potent reaction between several volatile elements within a dense space.

Lithium-ion batteries haven't changed much since 1991, when Sony commercialised the concept, but consumer electronics have. Smartphone manufacturers are racing to pack more and more features into razor-thin handsets at massive scale, at the same time as keeping prices down.

Eventually, the 25-year-old technology will get pushed beyond its limit.

A dying handset can invoke real anxiety until its owner finds a charging point.

This will only get worse when our cars are battery-powered. It means solving the battery question is one of the great prizes in technology.


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