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We’re part of Samsung’s battery problem

There’s no telling what will happen when your phone catches fire. A Florida couple named Nathan and Lydia Donacher saw their Jeep Grand Cherokee engulfed in flames recently after Nathan left his new Samsung Galaxy Note 7 charging in the vehicle with the engine running while he unloaded it. The Donachers hope to get restitution from Samsung, who I suspect will admit to the problem given their announcement of a global recall on the smartphone.

Fire-laden phones truly hit us where we live. There is probably no piece of technology as intimately wedded to us as our phones, given their increased ability to handle not just communications but a myriad of other functions from camera to music center. They’re our link to friends and family not just through voice calls but ubiquitous social media and texting.

Samsung got early reports of charging phones bursting into flames not long after the device’s release, and on Sept. 2 put a recall program into effect. The recall was initially a simple exchange program without any governmental oversight. It would be another two weeks before the company worked with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to issue a formal recall on one million of the smartphones which had just been introduced in the U.S. Although only a small number of phones actually caught fire, the slowness of the recall has hurt Samsung’s image.

The technology implicated in all this is the separators used in lithium batteries, which when manufactured incorrectly can let positive and negative electrodes come into contact. At least, that’s what we hear from Samsung, which calls it a “battery cell issue.” But problems with lithium batteries are hardly isolated to Samsung. In 2006, the industry was buzzing about lithium battery problems in notebook computers, involving a recall of close to 10 million Sony batteries.

Consider all the manufacturers that have been hit with battery issues. In 2009, 70,000 HP and Compaq notebooks were recalled because of the potential for overheating. HP was hit again in June of this year, with a recall of 40,000 batteries found in its notebook machines. Earlier in the year, Toshiba recalled 91,000 lithium-ion battery packs used in several of its products.

And it’s not just smartphones and computers that are at risk. Tesla had one of its battery-powered cars catch fire during a promotional tour in August, in an incident that is still being analyzed. And battery issues with hoverboards have produced electrical fires in the U.S., resulting in new fire safety features being incorporated into the products.

You can see where the battery problems are coming from. Every time people like me gripe about battery life on our phones, we’re sending a signal to the manufacturers to come up with more powerful batteries. Couple that with ever faster processors and their own power demands, and an inexorable drive to make thinner devices, and battery makers are stretched for answers.

We need to work this out, because a continuing string of battery issues, sometimes on batteries shipped on aircrafts, reminds us that the problem is not being solved rapidly enough. Bear in mind that in most cases, the numbers of people who actually experienced overheating or a fire is tiny, prompting an overall recall when few were affected. But as we push our phones and other devices, even cars, in the direction of more and more powerful batteries, the company that can come up with an airtight solution will be the answer to device manufacturers’ dreams.

Meanwhile, Verizon is again taking orders for the Note 7, which will now feature a safer battery. Samsung will see something on the order of $2 billion go down the drain because of the fiasco, but the real question will be whether its next iteration, the Note 8, can help the smartphone giant recover, not just with new features but a compelling case for safe operations. This is a manageable scenario for Samsung, but the pressure on Note 8 developers will be intense.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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