Exploding Smartphones: What’s the Silent Danger Lurking in our Rechargeable Devices?

New research identifies toxic emissions released by lithium-ion batteries

Oxford, October 20, 2016

Dozens of dangerous gases are produced by the batteries found in billions of consumer devices, like smartphones and tablets, according to a new study. The research, published in Nano Energy, identified more than 100 toxic gases released by lithium batteries, including carbon monoxide.

The gases are potentially fatal, they can cause strong irritations to the skin, eyes and nasal passages, and harm the wider environment. The researchers behind the study, from the Institute of NBC Defence and Tsinghua University in China, say many people may be unaware of the dangers of overheating, damaging or using a disreputable charger for their rechargeable devices.

In the new study, the researchers investigated a type of rechargeable battery, known as a “lithium-ion” battery, which is placed in two billion consumer devices every year.

“Nowadays, lithium-ion batteries are being actively promoted by many governments all over the world as a viable energy solution to power everything from electric vehicles to mobile devices. The lithium-ion battery is used by millions of families, so it is imperative that the general public understand the risks behind this energy source,” explained Dr. Jie Sun, lead author and professor at the Institute of NBC Defence.

The dangers of exploding batteries have led manufacturers to recall millions of devices: Dell recalled four million laptops in 2006 and millions of Samsung Galaxy Note 7 devices were recalled this month after reports of battery fires. But the threats posed by toxic gas emissions and the source of these emissions are not well understood.

Dr. Sun and her colleagues identified several factors that can cause an increase in the concentration of the toxic gases emitted. A fully charged battery will release more toxic gases than a battery with 50 percent charge, for example. The chemicals contained in the batteries and their capacity to release charge also affected the concentrations and types of toxic gases released.

Identifying the gases produced and the reasons for their emission gives manufacturers a better understanding of how to reduce toxic emissions and protect the wider public, as lithium-ion batteries are used in a wide range of environments.

“Such dangerous substances, in particular carbon monoxide, have the potential to cause serious harm within a short period of time if they leak inside a small, sealed environment, such as the interior of a car or an airplane compartment,” Dr. Sun said.

Almost 20,000 lithium-ion batteries were heated to the point of combustion in the study, causing most devices to explode and all to emit a range of toxic gases. Batteries can be exposed to such temperature extremes in the real world, for example, if the battery overheats or is damaged in some way.

The researchers now plan to develop this detection technique to improve the safety of lithium-ion batteries so they can be used to power the electric vehicles of the future safely.

"We hope this research will allow the lithium-ion battery industry and electric vehicle sector to continue to expand and develop with a greater understanding of the potential hazards and ways to combat these issues,” Sun concluded.

Read more on Elsevier Connect.

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Notes for editors
The article is "Toxicity, a serious concern of thermal runaway from commercial Li-ion battery," by Jie Sun, Jigang Li, Tian Zhou, Kai Yang, Shouping Wei, Na Tang, Nannan Dang, Hong Li, Xinping Qiu and Liquan Chen (doi:10.1016/j.nanoen.2016.06.031). It appears in Nano Energy, volume 27 (2016), published by Elsevier.

Copies of this paper are available to credentialed journalists upon request; please contact Elsevier's Newsroom at newsroom@elsevier.com or +31 20 485 2492.

About Nano Energy
Nano Energy is a multidisciplinary, rapid-publication forum of original peer-reviewed contributions on the science and engineering of nanomaterials and nanodevices used in all forms of energy harvesting, conversion, storage, utilization and policy. Through its mixture of articles, reviews, communications, research news, and information on key developments, Nano Energy provides a comprehensive coverage of this exciting and dynamic field which joins nanoscience and nanotechnology with energy science. The journal is relevant to all those who are interested in nanomaterials solutions to the energy problem.

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