It’s Not the Devices–It’s the Batteries

Michael GrossmanMarch 22, 2017 6 minutes

I am optimistic about the progress of technology and its increasing usefulness for modern living. I'm not blind to its more sinister applications, of course, but generally, when I think of the future I try to see less Blade Runner and more Jetsons.

Of course, part of the Jetsons future is a world that is so complex, people don't actually know how anything works. In such a world it's easy to see how people would begin to confuse a dangerous component in a product with the product itself. What I mean by this is that we often hear about exploding cars, smartphones, e-cigarettes, and even hoverboards, and conclude that these products are dangerous.

What we fail to realize is that these products all have a common power source: Lithium-ion batteries. If the same part of many different products is what is causing all of these fires, then why does the media report on "new" types of products that are catching fire? This bizarre trend is akin to blaming every make and model of car that has a Takata airbag for deaths caused by the said airbag.

The most recent example of this holistic approach to faulty-products reporting is a pair of wireless headphones that caught fire on a woman's head during an international flight from Beijing to Melbourne.

How Did Batteries Catch Fire on a Flight to Australia?

Details are a little sparse in the early reports about this incident. What we do know is that after interviewing the injured woman, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) says she woke up during the flight when she heard a loud popping sound, like a small explosion. Startled awake, she began to feel burns on the side of her face. She grabbed at the area, not yet aware of the source of the injury. That action jogged the headphones off her ears, at which point they slid down around her neck.

The burning pain continued; having identified the headphones as the problem, the woman pulled them off and threw them on the floor of the airplane cabin. The flaming electronics began to melt onto the floor, at which time flight attendants threw them into a hastily-filled bucket of water and took them to the rear of the plane. The headphones left a burned patch on the airplane floor, as well as the lingering unpleasant odors of burnt plastic and hair. Unable to crack a window for ventilation, passengers had to endure the nine remaining malodorous hours of the long-haul flight.

The ATSB and news sources did not release the name of the victim.
Image source: ATSB. The victim was not identified by name.

Thanks to her quick reaction to the headphones' violent explosion, the woman herself sustained only minor burns and blisters, though I'm sure the traumatic ordeal also left her pretty shaken. While we are of course relieved that her injuries were not worse, we question why they happened at all.

Lithium Ion Batteries Are Imperfect Technology, Especially When Poorly Made

Anyone who has owned a chargeable wireless device over the last decade has made use of lithium-ion batteries. The rechargeable power source is the predominant type of battery in consumer electronics, and the majority of the time it works just fine--to the point where users of everything from headphones to e-cigarettes to smartphones tend to take its safety for granted. Several electric cars use large-scale assemblies of lithium batteries to move to and fro. In a real way, the batteries have been just as important as the development of microprocessors when creating modern portable technologies.

Lest it sounds like I am unequivocally singing the praises of lithium-ion batteries, however, let me note that the coin has two faces. Some versions of the technology, which have been around in various forms since the 1970s, use volatile materials to wring the most juice out of the battery. Ordinarily, this gamble pays off without ill effects, but the precarious electrochemical balance of the battery requires very little to go from boon to bane. For instance, one common formula used in the batteries of consumer products is lithium cobalt oxide, which happens to be highly flammable. If it ignites, its self-contained oxygen supply makes it very difficult to extinguish, especially as oxygen from the surrounding area also feeds into it.

Such happenings are not as rare as we'd like; lithium-ion devices have featured regularly in product-recall lists and panic-prone news reports since the latter half of the 1990s. A wide swath of devices has been subject to recall when their power units have burned or even exploded. Portable e-cigarette vaporizers, laptop computers, digital cameras, smartphones, headphones, and numerous other products have made flashy headlines for their capacity to explode. A pallet of dormant lithium batteries even brought down a commercial UPS aircraft in 2010 when they auto-ignited in the cargo hold, killing the plane's crew.

These and many other examples illustrate the risky nature of the batteries. They can be testy, with some pitfalls that may not be immediately evident to end-users. For example, charging the device too fast or too much can cause a short circuit, as can even minor physical damage to the battery. If it is exposed to internal or ambient heat or punctured, it can begin a chain-reaction process called thermal runaway (I wrote some about this phenomenon recently with respect to a fire caused by charging an electric vehicle's battery). Complicated safety measures are employed in the batteries' design and manufacture to avoid these issues. They're generally effective, and improving with every generation, but when things go wrong, the potential for serious injuries or fatalities is very real.

When mostly-unrelated products are prone to combustion that injures their users, it's best to look for the common denominator. Defective products themselves need to be recalled to avoid circumstances like the one on the Melbourne flight, of course, but in the end, the recall is mostly about the safety of the batteries that run them. Newer generations of portable devices have demanded larger quantities of power while simultaneously requiring more battery life. In order to remain competitive, manufacturers found the quickest and cheapest way to comply was to reduce the space taken up by safety measures within the battery itself. This allows more room for reactive materials but also makes the batteries far more prone to hazards. The trend continued to worsen as battery production was outsourced to countries with reduced wholesale prices made possible by lower manufacturing safety standards.

Consumers Shouldn't Pay the Price For Lower Overhead

An oft-quoted chestnut of the free market is that competition breeds innovation. When multiple parties want to market similar products, each seeks ways to make its version stand out. That can take a variety of forms, from superficial paint jobs to the addition of extra features. For example, a group might choose to make its products from higher-end materials, hoping to attract consumers with an eye for perceived quality (and an acceptance of higher prices).

Opposite to that, other groups seek to offer similar products at considerably-reduced price points. Knock a few bucks off, and what is lost in per-unit price generally is recuperated in aggregate sales. However, the dollars and cents subtracted from the final cost have to be taken from somewhere in the generative process to keep profits high. That's where inferior materials and lower safety standards often come into play. To keep things cheap, some lithium battery makers in South Korea and China (where much of their manufacture is done) don't rigorously inspect their products before shipping them out to the makers of the products they'll power. These profits aren't made by making a better product, but because a company is willing to endanger its customers.

Product liability law holds manufacturers accountable for defective and dangerous products, especially when there is an available, safer design. We assume a certain amount of risk when we buy a lithium-ion battery-powered product; some experts believe that even the best manufacturing techniques still result in 1 in 10 million batteries exploding. However, inferior materials and manufacturing techniques often employed in the name of competition will greatly increase these risks. When someone is injured because a manufacturer used an inferior battery, the manufacturer can be held liable for those injuries.

With something like two decades of recorded data related to these hazards, the electronics industry can't feign ignorance about the risks of cutting corners while making lithium batteries. American law requires these manufacturers to honor their duty to create and sell goods that are made as safely as possible. That's one of the main backbones of product liability law--the idea that the maker of a product has fulfilled its duty to deliver a (relatively) safe item to a consumer.

The law does not excuse a company from fulfilling its duty simply because it wants to save money on its output. Should a consumer make the baffling choice to actually buy and ride a hoverboard, and if said hoverboard's use culminates in fire and injury, its makers must be held accountable for their decision to employ inferior lithium batteries.

Nobody would buy a product if they could easily predict that it would blow up in their faces, on their ears, in their laps, or anywhere else. When a fire or explosion occurs from an unstable lithium battery, the company that chose to contract with the battery's maker--that chose to release a product with a volatile grenade in it--owes the victim of that fire compensation for his or her damages.

So far, lithium batteries seem to be the best power source available for the device-driven world humanity wants to occupy. It's also worth noting that not every manufacturer produces inferior batteries, and for every dangerous incident like these headphones' combustion, millions of devices function perfectly. Scientists are experimenting with replacements that pose fewer hazards, but the technology is still being developed. In the meantime, it's important for manufacturers of these products to exercise responsible care in partnering with battery providers, lest everything blow up in their faces.