Avoiding Thermal Runaway On The Runway: Samsung Recalls Galaxy Note 7 Smartphones

In the wake of Samsung recalling roughly 2.5 million Galaxy Note 7 smartphones after numerous reports of their lithium batteries overheating, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has asked passengers who own this model of phone to turn it off while they flew due to a potential fire hazard.

This is an unprecedented move by the FAA considering that they rarely (if ever) have mentioned a particular brand or model of hardware as a specific threat. Still, the concern of lithium ion batteries catastrophically failing on a flight is not limited to phones. Many personal electronics we use every day and even equipment used on airlines themselves utilize these types of batteries.

Rechargeable lithium batteries are highly susceptible to overheating and catastrophically failing if they are damaged, exposed to extreme temperatures, or have manufacturing flaws. Once a battery begins to overheat, it can experience the “thermal runaway” phenomenon. This thermal runaway occurs when the initial increase in temperature causes a chemical reaction to occur that, in turn, causes more energy to be released.   This creates a feedback-loop of ever-increasing heat which has the potential to re-ignite flames, even after they’ve initially been put out.

While manufacturing defects such as the recent one that affected the Galaxy Note 7 are more or less impossible to detect as a consumer, there are actions you can take to prevent your phone or electronic device from spontaneous battery combustion:

Avoid damaging or puncturing your phone
While this may be a given, try your hardest not to damage your device. Keep in mind that damage can potentially be done over time by dropping, throwing, or otherwise making pointed contact with your phone.

Never trust off-brand batteries
If you’re looking to replace the battery that came with your device, always replace it with the same make and model of battery that originally came with the device. Even if a different battery is listed at an unbelievably good price, chances are the manufacturers cut some corners to drive the price down. A good rule of thumb is if the battery isn’t available by popular US retail providers but is available online internationally, chances are that battery doesn’t meet US safety regulations and should be avoided.

Avoid off-brand chargers
On a similar note, off-brand chargers have the potential to wear down or damage your battery due to overcharging. To extend the life of your battery and keep it in peak operating condition, stick to the charger that came with your device.

Never Charge in Extreme Temperatures
Obviously, high temperatures are to be avoided because if your battery reaches a high enough temperature, the “thermal runaway” begins. Conversely, you’ll also want to avoid charging your phone in sub-zero temperatures. While lithium ion batteries do operate better at lower temperatures, their ideal operating temperature range is between 10°C and 30°C (50°F and 86°F). If you were considering charging your phone overnight in your freezer to “optimize battery life” or leaving your phone charging in your hot car, you may come back to the charred remains of your phone (and your freezer or car for that matter).

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