Why Do Smartphones Catch on Fire?

Today’s smartphones typically capture headlines for things like new features, streamlined sizes or high-tech security options made possible by fingerprint readers and facial recognition.

Some of these devices also get attention for a reason their manufacturers dread: Reports of the gadgets catching on fire. So why does it happen?

Heat and Small Parts Don’t Always Play Nicely Together

People progressively demand smaller smartphones. But they often forget that all electronic devices produce heat. Some of the tiny components used for modern smartphones aren’t sufficiently resilient against those high temperatures. They can melt, or the level of heat can become so intense that a phone catches on fire.

A Battery Can Also Be the Culprit

Most tech enthusiasts still remember the infamous Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone. It ended up getting recalled because the phone kept exploding.

Until recently, Samsung stayed silent concerning details about what caused that dangerous problem. It eventually discussed how the problem happened because of separate issues with batteries from two suppliers.

Batteries originating from Samsung SDI didn’t have enough room between the heat-sealed pouch and a battery’s internal parts. That caused the electrodes in some batteries to crimp, resulting in short-circuiting.

That mistake in the manufacturing process made overheating especially likely during charging or when people used the phones in hot places.

Amperex Technology Limited was another company that provided batteries for the Samsung Galaxy Note 7. There were several issues with the products: Some batteries lacked insulation tape, and others had sharp protrusions inside the cells that damaged the separator sitting between the anode and cathode.

Plus, testing revealed that all batteries from the company had overly thin separators. The lack of thickness made separator damage more likely, which sometimes triggered short-circuiting.

Anyone who has ever charged a smartphone knows it can get slightly warmer than usual during that process. People might understandably wonder why smartphone engineers don’t take more precautions against future overheating fiascos when making their products.

A survey of 350 engineers found that thermal management was the lowest priority when they were designing their products. Ironically, their top concern was product reliability.

They’ve seemingly missed the connection between the two. In other words, if thermal mismanagement becomes an issue because of a design flaw, product reliability is virtually impossible.

Samsung’s Problems May Be Over – For Now

In May 2018, a woman from Detroit alleged that she had two Samsung phones — a Galaxy S4 and S8 — in her car’s cupholder when one of them sparked and caught on fire, making her entire vehicle go up in flames.

When responding to the incident via email, Samsung expressed a willingness to conduct a full investigation to find out what happened. Following the reports of similar issues, Samsung has implemented an eight-point battery testing process that identifies risks of their cell phone batteries before they hit the shelves.

Though there still is a chance of catching fire, though it has been decreased significantly.

Battery Trauma Can Also Make Phones Catch Fire

Many people drop their phones and think nothing of it. Hopefully, most of them took the step of inserting their gadgets into cases to reduce damage to the screen and side buttons. Unfortunately, the battery can get damaged due to drops, but the issues aren’t always noticeable until severe problems crop up.

Chinese media sources reported that an iPhone 7 Plus malfunctioned after a drop. First, it began vibrating continuously. Then, smoke poured out of the device. The situation progressed when the battery exploded, cracking the screen and making it nearly separate from the phone’s body.

Throwing Smartphones Into the Trash Is Dangerous

Smartphone fires also occur when people irresponsibly dispose of gadgets they no longer want or need by tossing them into trash cans or recycling bins. A lithium-ion battery exploded in a New York City garbage truck due to the compacting process the workers used when handling the discarded items.

Even when the batteries are no longer inside devices, the terminals can touch something metallic — like the inside of a metal garbage container or a garbage truck — thereby closing the circuit and causing a spark that could lead to something more severe.

It’s easy to imagine, then, what could happen if discarded batteries get mixed in with items that burn quickly, like newspapers. Responsible consumers should research whether their communities have battery-recycling programs specific to certain areas. If not, there are national initiatives at merchant locations, including Best Buy and Home Depot.

Instead of pursuing these options, people may assume that if they put their batteries in with other recyclable items, they’ll get noticed and someone will get rid of them properly. That’s too much to expect and could lead to catastrophe.

Staying Aware Is a Wise Measure

People who are concerned about their smartphones catching on fire should stay aware of reported issues with the phones they own. It could take a while for manufacturers to issue official notices, but other details could emerge earlier.

Plus, if users notice strange things about their phones, such as that the devices get extremely hot, they should stop using them and return them to the points of purchase.

Kayla Matthews

Kayla Matthews writes about technology and gadgets for Motherboard, MakeUseOf and The Gadget Flow. To read more posts by Kayla, check out her blog Productivity Bytes.